Opens: December 20
Genre: Art film/Period drama
Duration: 89 minutes

Anyone who saw Polish-British filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 film Ida, an austerely beautiful film that won a deserved Oscar for best foreign language film, knows loosely what to expect from this follow up. Those who missed it should prepare for a visual and aural treat that’s unlike anything else they’ll see in a contemporary cinema.

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot in Cold War. Photographs supplied

Set in Warsaw, Berlin and Paris, this is an elliptically told story of an epic, on-and-off love affair, loosely based on the lives of the filmmaker’s parents (the main characters, musician Wiktor and singer Zula, played by Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, are even named after them).

As if single-handedly attempting to revive the look and spirit of the great European art cinema of the 1950s and early 60s (the period in which it is set), the director has again employed a series of carefully and gorgeously composed black and white compositions. To further emphasise a distance from the rest of contemporary cinema, these are contained within the boxy old Academy ratio, the industry standard before widescreen images became the norm.

In this quiet, thoughtful film, the characters often stay relatively still, as if waiting to be photographed – suggesting the era’s slower pace of life. Despite this, the pacing never feels overly slow or sluggish.

Apart from its visually appeal, Cold War is replete with rich musical performances, from East European folk music to smoky cellar jazz. It won Pawlikowski the best director prize at Cannes 2018 and it’s not hard to understand why the judges were impressed.

Joanna Kulig

There is, it should be noted, a certain coldness that extends from the film’s title to the feel of the images and particularly its narrative ellipses. The story occasionally leaps forward a few years without explaining too much of what has transpired in the meantime. We see how the pair met. He was the musical director for a Communist traditional folk song and dance group, she was one of the performers who auditioned for him. Yet we don’t see how they became romantically linked – an unconventional omission, to say the least. Neither is the power/status mismatch between them openly addressed.

It’s worth noting the characters are always oddly framed thanks to the unusual amount of space above their heads. This of course is no accident. It has the effect of making Zula and Wiktor belittled somewhat by their surroundings.

All these creative choices result in a tale of the heart that, by clear design, interrogates that passion, asking us to wonder how much it was ever really there. If this film appeals more to the eyes, the senses and the intellect than the emotions, that is precisely, I think, what Pawlikowski intends. If all of Hollywood is a form of melodrama, here is its opposite – understated drama that pulls between poignancy and, via its music, a more full-blooded life spirit.

Cold War is screening in Palace Cinemas from December 20