It seems there are critics who were expecting this film, probably due to its title, to be a serious historical drama, one that exposes the bureaucratic tyranny of the early communist regime in Poland. I think that audiences will be similarly disappointed if they go to it thinking it will illuminate that historical period, which is, roughly, from 1949 to 1970.
Well, I was not disappointed, but it was probably because Polish director-writer Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) had already lowered my expectations. Or, if not lowered them exactly, had clued me in that this was a very different kind of film. For me, it falls into the genre of an artist’s total obsession with cinema, especially with how it can express the joys and sadness of doomed romantic love.
Pawlikowski clued me in early on. Wiktor, played by Tomasz Kot, is recruiting young people from the peasantry to perform genuine Polish folk music for international audiences. It is all part of putting a “human” face on the new Communist regime. Wiktor is a talented pianist and arranger and, with Irene, his mistress, sees the project as key to his career. But this plan is disrupted in a major way: he becomes fascinated by Zula, played by Joanna Kulig, a fulsome, blond girl who may or may not be a peasant, but who shows no inclination to wait for Wiktor to “notice” her. In a private interview, she asks him if he is interested in her musical skill, or just her. She asks because, in a sense, “it’s the kind of thing a girl should know”. His response is pretty direct: we next see them panting feverishly, fully clothed, copulating against the office wall. And it gets hotter from there.
From then on, thoughts of international politics were not a major concern. Not to Pawlikowski or to his intended audience. Tomasz Kot resembles Matthias Schoenaerts, but with more dangerous eyes, and Kulig is…what, exactly? Less an actress than a natural wonder of pure sex, in full eruption, like something photographed from a helicopter.
Wiktor plans their defection with her, but she pulls back at the last moment, leaving him the lone defector. Much of the rest of the film is their struggle, with periodic success, but always frustratingly, to satisfy their passion while the iron curtain stands between them. The frustration is finally relieved, but tragically, when one of them comes through the curtain to join the other.
It is said Pawlikowski based the story on his parents. If so, cineastes of a Freudian mindset will have a field day over what it shows about what he thinks of them…or they of him. At any rate, Pawlikowski chose to film it in black-and-white, as Cuaron did for his own autobiograical story, “Roma”. But, unlike “Roma”, the cinematography, by Lukas Zal, is pretty spectacular. Except for the rather pretty costumes in the troupe’s musical numbers, the early scenes in Poland are kind of drab. In fact, there’s nothing of what we see of Poland that is visually memorable. But once Pawlikowski takes us to Paris, well, all bets are off. For anyone who has seen the nouvelle vague films of the 60’s, it is impossible not to be reminded of them. The streets and sights of Paris – the cafes, the smoke-filled jazz clubs, the images of nights by the Seine – are displayed here like jewels in the crown; Pawlikowski’s devotion to those memories is near religious and, for me, transporting.
But, and this for me sums up the film’s strength as well as its weakness, the most dominating image is of Kulig. Now dazzlingly blonde, sheathed in designer black, she steals every scene, and when absent, you bide your time until she returns. One throw-away scene is typical. Alone in a room, chugging vodka, Zula sneers out the word “metaphor” because Wiktor’s mistress is a published poet. Unfortunately, the narrative of how the lovers become political pawns, ruining their lives, just doesn’t seem to inspire Pawlikowski as much as his lead actress.
This is most spectacularly shown in a party scene. When Zula joins the crowd to dance to “Rock Around The Clock” – which is filmed with more pulse-quickening brio than anything in LaLa Land – I knew that it was not going to advance any insights into world politics. But, believe me, I didn’t miss it.
Spoiler alert: the quiet ending is inspired. Zula says “Let’s go to the other side. The view is better there.” They are sitting on a bench, and we can see that view behind them. Then they get up to leave, and to join us, in the audience, to see it for themselves.