Pawel Pawlikowski has crafted a bleak and beautiful tribute to the joys and violence of love and ideology.
Beginning in Poland in the 1950s, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is travelling the Polish countryside with Irena (Agata Kulesza) and Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), a good Communist, searching for folksongs and performers for a show. Zula (Joanna Kulig) auditions and, although she doesn’t have the best voice, she has a confidence and self assurance that catches Wiktor’s attention. Irena is oblivious to it, so we deduce Wiktor’s interest is for more than Zula’s voice.
The show is a huge success, so much so that the government wants to include songs about agricultural reform and the greatness of Stalin. Disillusioned but unable or unwilling to speak up, Wiktor asks Zula to escape with him when the show tours to Berlin.
Ostensibly about the love story between Wiktor and Zula, and loosely based on the director’s parents’ story, this is not a conventional or life affirming romance. Episodically cutting from year to year and city to city as the two lovers meet and part, the narrative trajectory is almost violent in its structure and flow. Woven through is the impact on both Wiktor and Zula of the ideologies and culture they have experienced. For Zula, who has a past that has created a need for and skills of survival, there is nothing she won’t do to ensure her success and safety, even if it means living with oppression. Wiktor seems to have had an easier life and yearns only for artistic freedom, regardless of the consequences.
Perhaps it is the difference in how their lives have been shaped that keeps getting in the way of their relationship. Although believable, and I’ve experienced the hopeless fascination of a love that just doesn’t work in practice, my frustration with the characters’ pigheadedness and seeming inability to properly communicate kept me at an emotional distance from the story. Maybe that was a deliberate ploy of the filmmaker.
The black-and-white cinematography is stunning, squashed into a 4:3 format and with plenty of empty space in the frame to enhance a sense of both containment and isolation. The sudden changes in camera viewpoints jar in a way that gives you a giddy and momentary sense of disorientation. The music is sublime, from the vocal harmonies of pastoral folksongs to the loose smokiness of jazz. The blues rendition of the Polish love song and the dance to Rock Around the Clock have stuck in my brain.
In keeping with the tumultuous story arc, the ending is bleak but handled with such sensitivity that it softens the blow.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.