Film history would be largely nonexistent if not for stories of age-inappropriate love affairs, but thankfully, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War veers away from being a Call Me by Your Name-esque “grown-ass man wants to fuck a teen” story. Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a provincial woman with an excellent singing voice in 1949 Poland, and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a traveling musician tasked by the State with assembling a touring folk ensemble. The picture follows their mostly off-again romance through 1964 as they try to make their incompatible lives and personalities as compatible as possible in Iron Curtain-era Europe.
Though Zula is visually coded as a teenager at first, she gets to age and grow and have a full life that isn’t entirely defined by Wiktor, even if they keep falling into each other’s orbits, usually in musical contexts. The diegetic music, whether in Paris jazz clubs or movie scoring sessions, expresses the emotions they’re never quite able to, or at least not as destructively. Like Pawlikowski’s previous work Ida, this picture feels like a film out of time, shot in glorious black-and-white with a steady camera and careful compositions — and while Cold War only barely passes the Bechdel Test, a line like “I love you, but I have to puke now” erases a multitude of sins.
Rated R. Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.