There’s an expensive type of fine art photography print—one with processing names like Ilfochrome & Cibachrome—that makes black & white prints look positively silver, vibrantly metallic instead of merely devoid of color. It’s a look that’s been digitally replicated recently in comic book noir visual experiments like (the positively dreadful) Sin City & Mad Max: Fury Road’s (surprisingly worthwhile) “Black & Chrome” reissue. It’s also so old-fashioned to cinematic language that the phrase “on the silver screen” is a well-worn cliché. The most striking thing about the romantic Polish drama Cold War is the silver glow of its cinematography – so visually stunning it recalls seeing an expensive Cibachrome print in person instead of in recreation. Shot in a boxy “Academy” aspect ratio and covering nearly two decades of a tragic romance in 90 rapid-fire minutes of editing room efficiency, Cold War is undeniably impressive as a formalist object. It’s absolutely stunning as a fine art photograph – both handsome & haunting in its cold, metallic imagery. Yet, as a motion picture it’s a little too formally rigid for its own good, and staring at any still image photograph for 90 consecutive minutes is going to test your patience, no matter how well composed.
That’s not to say there’s no passion, music, or movement to the story Cold War tells. In fact, its story about two mismatched lovers whose passionate, unavoidable attraction to each other inevitably leads them to ruin is full of life & music. It’s just that its overwhelming, soul-consuming emotions are directly at odds with its art gallery formalism. A music director of a Polish folk preservation project falls in love with one of the more mysterious, magnetic performers in his cast – a young woman with a violent past. Their lust for each other is consummated quickly across class lines, but they subsequently fail to establish a normal, healthy life together as romantic partners. As an artistic musical project meant to preserve authentic Polish folk culture is coopted as nationalist propaganda under Stalinist rule, indicating the general political landscape around them, the two lovers make drastically different choices in how they relate to their shared homeland. Their mutual attraction to each other is deadly powerful, however, and they continually cross social, political, and ethical boundaries over a decade or so of dangerous cat & mouse “romance.” The problem is that the harshly segmented edits, rigidly formalist photography, and overall machine-like precision of the filmmaking does little to match or enhance their passion. As impressed as I was with the film’s storytelling efficiency, it felt like the deadly attraction at its core kept getting cut short every time it started to heat up. The result was very pretty to look at, but also frustratedly stilted in its movement.
The opening “Poland’s Got Talent” portion of Cold War, where hipster sophisticates “elevate” “peasant-style” folk art by affording it a proper stage, matched the rigid fine art photography of its formalist structure perfectly. As the wild, destructive passions of its story heat up & flame out, however, the film does little to signify that change in any noticeable way. It’s like watching a handsomely composed still photograph try to break form and become a motion picture, but it never leaves its fixed spot on the art gallery wall. This is a complaint I saw lodged much more frequently (and, to me, erroneously) at another one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. If any film’s form does not match its subject, it’s Cold War, where it’s easy to be impressed with the silver screen artistry of the projected image, but difficult to get swept up in the music, movement, and emotion before they’re harshly cut short. I can’t deny the potency of the film’s visual achievements, but I wonder if they were applied to the right project.