I take a back seat to no one in my admiration for ROMA, the pristine meditation that garnered 10 Oscar nominations last week and made Netflix Hollywood's most-debated subject matter in a generation. But my own heart has been stolen by another foreign film this award season: Cold War, which dares you not to fall in love with it. It's breathtaking, and in any other year, it would be the hands-down favorite to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Truth be told, it should take home that golden statuette, at least in my own humble opinion. I can't wait for you to see it.
Cold War is a dangerous dance across the decades that were held in the vice-grip between the end of World War II and the Polish revolutions of the late 20th century. But instead of focusing on those events of historical tumult, Oscar-winning writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) has turned his eyes to the very personal tangle of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a couple you won't soon forget. Not unlike Yuri and Lara of Doctor Zhivago, Wiktor and Zula are slaves to each other's souls in a cruel-to-be-kind symbiosis. More simply, Wiktor is "ice" to Zula's "fire."
There are so many reasons to exalt Pawlikowski's use of black and white for Cold War: the barren ruins of post-war Poland, in the film's early scenes, practically induces chilblains, while, at the film's midpoint, black and white images of a burgeoning jazz age in 1950s Paris beckons us to that era. Despite the lack of color, Pawlikowski and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal find numerous ways to visually underscore their shifts in dramatic tone. For example, the movie begins with a handheld, almost documentary look; but during another early scene, when Wiktor and Zula canoodle in a meadow by a riverbank, Pawlikowski and Zal use a wide lens to fill the screen with their lust/angst. Later, in another contrast, Pawlikowski and Zal exploit the shiny glamor of mid-20th century Paris: The blacks are deeper and the white neon is lustrous.
The most burning image, though, is that of Ms. Kulig, who will undoubtedly become a global superstar. Her frank, tempestuous, knowing and alluring performance explodes off the screen. Whether she's performing traditional folk songs, Soviet-era propaganda anthems, soulful jazz riffs, cheesy Polish pop songs, and even singing along and gyrating to Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," she clenches Wiktor, and us, in a hypnotic hold.
Cold War caught more than a few Hollywood types by surprise when it snagged three Oscar nominations last week: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director (Pawlikowski) and Best Cinematography (Zal). It is, no doubt, being overshadowed by the much-buzzed ROMA this award season, but Cold War is a classic telling of how all love is political, sometimes unbridled by hysteria, yet shackled to a fear of surrender. I just can't shake it.