If there were no other reason to see Cold War, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's follow-up to his Academy Award-winning Ida, you could find a compelling one in the person of Joanna Kulig, an actress whose energy and sensuality seem nearly uncontainable on screen. In Cold War, Kulig portrays a singer who puts her talents to the service of the Soviet-occupied Polish bureaucracy during the 1950s.
Good as she is, Kulig is far from the only reason to see Cold War, a story of ill-fated love that subtly blends politics, history and personal drama into a powerful story about people who aren't entirely in control of their destinies.
Pawlikowski deftly charts the bumpy relationship between Kulig's Zula and Wiktor, an equally good Tomasz Kot. A pianist who defects to the West, Wiktor hopes that Zula will follow. She doesn't.
In this impossible situation, a powerful but stammering, 15-year love affair gives the movie its emotional weight. Pawlikowski, who says he modeled the movie after the tempestuous relationship between his mother and father, follows Wiktor and Zula whose lives diverge -- but never entirely separate.
After his defection, Wiktor plays jazz piano and languishes in Paris. Zula pursues her career behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes visiting Wiktor to reignite the spark of a relationship that never really loses its charge.
Again working black-and-white, Pawlikowski begins the movie in 1949 when Wiktor and Zula first meet. Wiktor and an associate (Agata Kulesza) are touring rural Poland in search of authentic folk music. They audition locals and try to deal with the party boss (Borys Szyc) who has been assigned the task of ensuring that the troupe upholds the best Slavic virtues; i.e., a blond purity that excludes the country's various ethnicities.
As soon as Wiktor sees Zula, he's smitten. She may not be the most talented of the troupe's prospective members, but she has a quality that sets her apart from the rest. They begin an affair, which Zula hopes to sustain even though she's informing on Wiktor to the troupe's Communist boss. Business, after all, is business. Why should Wiktor be upset?
In 1951, when the company begins its tour, it becomes clear that Stalinesque priorities are going to dominate. Wiktor knows that he must move westward. By then, Zula has been caught up in an eastern version of stardom. She opts for career over love.
But that description sells her a bit short. Zula is one of those big-screen women who simply refuse to be tagged with a label.
For his part, Kot -- the corners of his mouth turned upward -- beautifully conveys the dilemma of a man who chooses the freedom of the West but can't really find his footing in a new world.
When Wiktor and Zula spend some sustained time with each other in Paris, things don't go well. It sounds like a cliche, but these truly are lovers who can't live with each other and can't live without each other.
A word about the movie's length. Pawlikowski keeps the story to 88 minutes, shooting scenes in the "Academy ratio," the aspect ratio that once defined all film and which suggests the classical outlines of Pawlikowski's story.
I mention the movie's economy of length only to suggest that it doesn't take two hours and 10 minutes, the running time of many American features, to tell a complicated, emotionally involving story. Hollywood take note.