Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and writer Annie Proulx, whose works include the short story that was turned into the groundbreaking eight-Oscar-nomination Brokeback Mountain, and The Shipping News, was moved by passion to write a guest column on Cold War. Director Pawel Pawlikowski wrote his black-and-white Poland-set historical period drama with Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski, and based the plot set in the ruins of post-World War II Poland on the love story of his own parents. The film stars Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig as the couple, and the Amazon Studios-released film is up for three Oscars including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director (Pawlikowski) and Best Cinematography (Lukasz Zal).
I was bound to this film from the first powerful image, happy that it was in black and white, then the unblinking semi-rigid musicians in cultural straight jackets that began to expand into an almost-lost musical world.
The film shapes itself around the love story, of course, but it has another layer of meaning which makes it a high-style allegory. The character Zula could represent Poland itself after the bloody dismemberment of WWII, Poland ruined and oppressed and yet somehow finer than any other place, and Poland being fitted into various non-Polish regimes which the film slyly indicates with the years of travel and accompanying catalog of outsider musical styles.
The contrast between the pure old folk music of Poland and the comparatively meretricious styles of other cultures reaches a high point when Zula, after one performance, bypasses her husband and child and hurls herself into Wiktor’s arms, then runs to throw up (presumably in disgust at her own cooperating performance of showily attractive but alien music). Poland cannot be other than Poland as Wiktor cannot be a man outside of Poland, as Zula cannot continue making the music of other people. Yes, they have to go back.
The photography was beyond words. Several shots strongly evoked Vermeer—the treatment of light throughout was unusually sensitive and some images will be with me a long time: the rose window with intricate shrub, the rain-wet shining leaves of young linden trees, three women at a window bathed in cool luminescence.
The film gets a bit sticky and tricky toward the end. The Crown-Prince-Rudolph-and-Mary-Vetsera ending is clearly in the offing. But the viewer’s belief is suddenly suspended: no one can toss down a handful of sleeping pills without a glass of water.
Yet is not this omission of detail a signal to the viewer that this is indeed an allegory, not a history? As for the wonderful last line it is a perfect ending—the Polish sense of humor honed by history, bitter and funny.
So, do we get to say this film is a Polish musical comedy?