Part of the brilliance of folk music are the variations that exist between songs depending on geography. Each artist adds their own individual style and flair to the wording, potentially changing the meaning of the song based soley on context. No film may have captured that lightning in a bottle like Cold War, a sprawling and beautiful meditation on love from Pawel Pawlikowski. Like a song, a relationship can change depending on the context. Pawlikowski approaches this premise and created one of the most personal and masterful films of the year.

Cold War is a sprawling epic of a love story told over decades. The two-hander follows Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a young music director who is set to discover talent from around Poland and Eastern Europe. With the help of Irena (Agata Kulesza), the two record folk music from across the country. Wiktor meets a singer named Zula (Joanna Kulig) and the two have an instant attraction. Wiktor develops a showcase for Zula, and in the ensuing years, the traveling show becomes a symbol for the USSR. When plans to escape to Western Europe fall through, the two lovers are left on opposite sides, their love a casualty to the dominating world forces.

Pawlikowski shoots the film in black and white, letting his cinematographer Lukasz Zal really shine. Zal continues to showcase his brilliance, shooting in a 4:3 aspect ratio that still delivers all the beauty and spectacle of the era. Music and style shifts, and Zal’s steady hand helps the changing world feel organic and cohesive. Pawlikowski blends in folk music as it evolves into jazz, rock and roll, and even cuban influences over the decades. His knowledge of music and the way it can transport the audience to a place in time is remarkable. It at once makes the movie timeless, yet very much sets us in the moments when the world looked darkest.

Kulig and Kot are fantastic, but Kulig really shines. She gives off an energy and mania similar to what made audiences fall in love with Jennifer Lawrence. She has a cold charisma, but when she’s with Kot, that facade melts away. It’s a highly emotional story, yet the way that Kulig composes herself, you would never know the intensity of her pain. She’s something special, and capturing that lightning in a bottle electrifies the entire film. Kot is great, but his performance gets overshadowed by Kulig. That said, his subtly adds layers of depth to the film, and his desperation creates true empathy throughout the film. Without Kot, it is doubtful that this film works. His chemistry and willingness to cede the screen to Kulig absolutely cements the emotion present throughout the film.

Pawlikowski lets his craftsmen really shine throughout the film. The audio is killer, and the ways that songs are mixed and recorded is brilliant. There are even different recordings of vocals, including audio over a big band performing, acapella, and what it sounds like in a quiet Jazz club. This works in its own right, but when sound and music is integral to the plot, it makes you focus on the little things. Lucky for Cold War, these moments excel. The costumes work really shines as well, and given the dozens of costumes each character has to don, you’re amazed at variety brought out of the story.

However, the most impressive element of the film is the editing. At a crisp 88 minutes, it is mindblowing how much ground is covered. Every scene is integral, and there’s no time to not build the story. Frankly, it feels rushed at moments, but a love story like this one can often be too sprawling. Considering the film has every bit the grandiose feel of the Atonement‘s and A Very Long Engagement style films, the short runtime and breezy pace really sells the picture.

Cold War is one of the achievements of the year as a film, and looks like it will only continue to gain fans in the years that follow. A darkly grim look at a romance, Pawilkowski created another true masterpiece of filmmaking. He plays with form, lets his cinematographer work, and ultimately leaves the story in the hands of more than talented actors. With Kulig a potential spoiler for Oscar, and Pawilkowski showing off the technical brilliance of a master at every turn, don’t be surprised if this becomes a beloved film in the years to come.

GRADE: (½)

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