He’s a musician, or maybe a musicologist, lightly burdened by Marcello Mastroianni-style ennui, touring post-war Poland, barely introduced in an opening montage as one of two government-appointed scouts listening to a series of home-grown Polish folk music talent. Maybe he’s holding some auditions, maybe he’s learning their traditions. We see her later at his new music boarding school out in the country. She will soon be enrolled, but for now, she’s one of many participating in the Polish People’s Republic’s Got Talent. He’s looking for people who aren’t reading music, who sing ‘peasant-style’. She’s from the city, and has plenty of style. She’s an anomaly, an anachronism, a Jennifer Lawrence, Léa Seydoux type, sultry, angry, either ambitious or desperately fleeing something. They say she killed her father. She’s not an anachronism, you just don’t know any Cold War-era Polish divas. The characters, Wiktor and Zula, are based on the director’s parents, and played by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot.
He sees her audition. I’m not sure we ever see their first kiss. It’s a Polish A Star Is Born. Except her singing is not show-stopping, except she’s one of many stars in his choral firmament of Polish folk song and dance touring Eastern Europe, and he’s taking all the credit for showing the stuffy city-dwellers the beauty in their native music, which they had, of course, dismissed as rustic and sloppy. Agata Kulesza, an impossible combination of ice-cool style and heartbreaking guilt in Pawlikowski’s previous film, is playing the other talent scout. She’s quickly, mercilessly dismissed, too aghast at the nationalistic compromises Wiktor is willing to make at the expense of his music’s authenticity and lyrical richness.
Wiktor is fed up, not of Zula, but of the small box their romance is allowed to fit in. He’s a ‘bourgeois wanker’, but she considers crossing over to the West with him. They hatch a plan. Her hair, her clothes and makeup have already changed drastically, thanks to some of the best work in those departments of any film this year. But she won’t change for Wiktor, leaving him to flee to Paris alone. Later, in a noirish detour to Yugoslavia, Wiktor sees her again. He’s soon mercifully bundled back to Paris by the authorities, who see his pined-for love as a genre trope, a ‘femme fatale’ from whom he’s made a lucky escape.
They meet again in Paris for the meat of the film, its sad and sexy heart. We start to discern the shape of the story, two restless souls going through decades of an affair of love and cruelty, at either end of an elastic band, its latent, heart-rending snaps hurling them into each other’s latest miseries. It’s a story told in black and white, and academy ratio, and like Ida, this never feels like a decision made in homage or pastiche. It simply works for the story being told, for each setting being explored. Jazz-age Paris is doused in oily blackness, the couple looking up at the window of Notre Dame during a night-time boat ride. Familiar Paris landmarks are made to seem dreadfully obscure, difficult to parse.
He tries to launch her as a singing sensation, his French poetess ex-lover free-translating the lyrics of her dearest Polish folk song, to her disapproval. ‘Translation’ literally means ‘carrying across’, a journey across borders; some luggage will be lost, some costs incurred, risks taken, experience gained. He plays up the rumours that he heard about her when they first met, creating a mythology that will help sell her to the French public. He doesn’t ask her whether she wants to be sold. Being introduced to artists and record producers is no more fun for her than when he used to show her to government apparatchiks. Did he ever appreciate her talent, or was she just the most beautiful girl of the lot?
They were children when he taught them music, and he betrayed not just his country but the children who were in his care. A Polish official states that to him as a matter of fact. It puts the relationship in a different light, or a different darkness. By this time, we’ve seen him hit her. They cross borders several more times, to lose or find each other, finding the process more corrosive to themselves and their relationship each time. Perhaps the more they corrode, the more they need each other. She delivers a final joke in deadpan: ‘let’s cross to the other side, it’ll look better over there’. It means at least three things at once, and sums up Wiktor and Zula’s paradox of total commitment and restless indecision. It’s a statement of profound religious and political significance, but what terrifies me is how little it might mean.
Pawlikowski is a serious filmmaker who doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that history happens in widescreen. History never makes itself well known to the people living through it; quite often it feels more like a movie than real life. The scope of his two most recent stories, both dealing with post-war Poland’s past and future, is at once suffocatingly narrow and devastatingly wide, protracted to excess, even in the space of his less than 90 minute running times. Everything is flecked through with a casual appreciation for genre, for style and stylishness injected like an icy stiletto into the heart of his characters. ‘Repressed’ isn’t quite the right word for his characters, but they certainly suffer in layers of monotone, short blips of feeling that add up to something more symphonic, crystallised instances of black or white that form a monochrome image. It’s a black and white musical movie, after all, albeit one resting in the shadow of some unnamed menace. It feels less like European arthouse than Hollywood pre-code, straightforward, mordant, and unapologetically entertaining.