Cold War
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Cold War (Grade: A-), from Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, is a haunted postwar epic in miniature, like a novel written with the careful, precise economy of a short story. Tracking the ups and downs of a tumultuous love affair against seismic shifts in the cultural landscape, it condenses a decade of plot and history into a spare, elegant 84 minutes; no shot or scene feels wasted. “Old-fashioned” is a word many have already used to describe the film’s craftsmanship and careful evocation of midcentury Europe, earning it probably the most widely glowing acclaim bestowed on anything that’s screened here at Cannes yet. But for all he does to transport us backwards in time—and make no mistake, this is a time machine of a period piece, vivid as a photographic memory—Pawlikowski knows too much about the period he’s dramatizing to let nostalgia cloud his hindsight. There’s a crucial difference between romanticizing the past and seeing romance in it.

Fixing his gaze again on his native Poland, which he left as a teenager and came back to for the making of his Oscar-winning Ida—an invigorating return, at least artistically—Pawlikowski follows an on-and-off, years-spanning romance between two temperamentally mismatched musicians. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a creatively unmoored composer, meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young singer from the city pretending to be a simple mountain girl, during auditions for the traveling folk ensemble he’s assembling. The two are ill-suited for each other, and their relationship is untenable on its best days, destructive on its worst. But something keeps drawing them back together, even after Wiktor flees to France to escape the tightening grip of Stalinism, which has twisted their increasingly popular music group into just another gear of the Soviet propaganda machine. Cold War keeps pulling its lovers fatalistically forward in time and across the map, every blackout a leap ahead, the world changing around them.

Cold War
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

There are images so strikingly beautiful that you want to crawl inside of them to live, even at the risk of being swallowed whole by the melancholy they capture. Anyone who caught Ida will instantly recognize Pawlikowski’s style: the “Academy ratio” squareness of the frame, the excess headroom in his carefully arranged and mostly static compositions, the pristine, contrast-heavy, black-and-white cinematography. But in Cold War, that meticulousness of form, that almost reverent stillness, has been sporadically disrupted, usually in concert with Zula’s more erratic movements within the frame, her volatility as a musical and physical force. Kulig’s performance is remarkable and star-making.

Ida, in its excavating-the-past narrative, felt personal: a complicated homecoming about a complicated homecoming. Cold War, whose incompatible lovers are literally named for Pawlikowski’s parents, may be even more so. It’s plainly a film about displacement, an expat’s vision of Europe, equally attuned to the smoky, gorgeous, somehow dissatisfying glamour of 1950s Paris and what it depicts as the colder austerity of rural, contemporaneous Poland. Their very relationship has the weight of potent metaphor: apart and together become proxies for exile and return. When you can’t live with or without someone, is the agony the same as the siren call back home, no matter what awaits you there? Cold War works on both levels, the macro and the micro, and it does so with an exquisite, masterful brevity. What was I saying yesterday about sometimes taking a long movie over a short one? The reverse can be true, too.

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If a frontrunner for the Palme D’Or has emerged at this early date, then Cold War is it. Of course, guessing what will win the Cannes equivalent of Best Picture has become as difficult as finding an affordable hotel on the French Riviera. We’re talking about a decision made by a small jury of filmmakers, movie stars, and artists beholden only to their own personal tastes and whims. Did anyone predict that the Coen brothers and the rest of the competition jury of 2015 would go for Dheepan, which screened at the end of the festival and to little fanfare? Last year right around this time, everyone seemed sure the Palme might go to BPM (Beats Per Minute), about the Paris wing of ACT UP. It ended up taking home the Grand Prix, which is essentially second place, instead. Not bad for a wild guess on all our parts.

Sorry Angel
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

There’s actually a kind of correlative to BPM in this year’s competition lineup: Christophe Honoré’s equally chatty Sorry Angel (Grade: B-), which is set in roughly the same milieu—an early ’90s Paris in the grips of the AIDS epidemic—but trades the procedural, nuts-and-bolts vision of activism for a personal angle, following the tentative romance that develops between a novelist and single father (Pierre Deladonchamps) who’s contracted the virus and the twentysomething student (Vincent Lacoste) he meets in a movie theater. The film opens with a series of flashy jump cuts, jetting around the city and offering brief little snapshot introductions to the characters—the exact kind of hyper-stylized credits sequence one might expect from the director of Love Songs and La Belle Personne. Sorry Angel actually turns out to be one of Honoré’s more restrained dramas, with nary a musical interlude in sight, though it’s indulgent in a different way; the excess lies in its ramble of a plot, which zigzags around the lives—and romantic histories—of its lovers, taking its cues from the endlessly pontificating characters. But the film has some lovely beats, and good chemistry between its leads.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the largely dialogue-free Arctic (Grade: B-), starring Mads Mikkelsen as a man stranded in, well, the Arctic, fighting for his life as well as that of a stranger who crash-lands in a helicopter, not far from his own downed aircraft. A pure survival procedural, the film reveals next to nothing about the backstory of its driven protagonist—we don’t even know where he was flying to or why he crashed, as the film opens with him already deep into his routine, carving an SOS sign in the snow and subsisting on raw fish. As a showcase for Mikkelsen’s commitment, it’s sometimes gripping; best known for the chilly, Nordic remove he’s brought to various villains, including Hannibal Lecter himself, Mads gets to show an intense vulnerability for once. That’s worth seeing, though one wishes Arctic complicated its life-and-death ordeal a little more, or at least varied its obstacles. At a certain point, even raw, screaming endurance isn’t quite drama enough.

Tomorrow: Two films from big shots of the festival, Jean-Luc Godard and Jia Zhangke.