Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc
84 mins; Poland, France, UK 2018
This is a story that is rich, complex, funny and tragic, yet told with extraordinary economy. It’s not even an hour and a half long, but it feels as if you are living through a whole era, a whole life. The film is shot in black and white (as was Pawlikowski’s memorable earlier film, Ida): it is utterly beautiful and seems utterly right.
1949, and 17-year-old Zula wins a place with a group of young singers and dancers gathered from villages across Poland – they will be the cultural face of the new Poland, a folkloric export to other countries of the socialist bloc, singing and dancing in their peasant costumes in praise of socialism, world peace and Stalin. Wiktor, ten years or so older than Zula, is a collector of folk music, a musician and composer himself, and conductor of this troupe of young peasant pioneers.
I was reminded of Yugoslavia in the late 60s, when I used to go and stay with my parents who were working in Zagreb. The whole folkloric peasant thing was still an important aspect of socialist culture. And in the 1970s in newly independent Mozambique, too: folk dancing and music from villages in all the different provinces. It was used as a way of forging a national – socialist – identity.
Zula and Wiktor fall deeply, passionately, tragically in love.
Joanna Kulig is mesmerising as blonde, pretty, troubled, Zula. At 17 she has served time in prison for the attempted murder of her father (‘He mistook me for my mother; I showed him the difference with the point of a knife,’ to paraphrase), and is reporting on her lover Wiktor – excellent Tomasz Kot – to the Party apparatchik (a subtle performance from Borys Szyc) who manages the troupe and is hitting on Zula as well as blackmailing her.
Then we jump the years, each jump signalled by a black blank screen, as we move from place to place: Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Yugoslavia, Poland again. Zula and Wiktor cross and re-cross the Iron Curtain, chasing each other, chasing their love, growing older.
Ismay: the jump cuts were brilliant: they move you swiftly from one period to the next, and you don’t have to worry about all the stuff that must have happened in between, the marriages, divorces, compromises, and so on. You just see what is absolutely important. Beautiful shots and beautiful music. This will stay with me for a long time.
Music is even more important than it was in Ida; the soundtrack moves from melancholy folk song to smoky Parisian jazz. And the dance scenes are terrific, from whirling swirling choreographed folk dances, to tentative sad waltzes with lumpy East German men, to wild, drunken, desperate rock’n’roll in a Paris basement nightclub.
My friend Julia Szoltysek emailed me from Sosnowiec: Pawlikowski is amazing: he makes films which have a really magical climate … of course he is hated by the government and the Ministry of Culture who all denounce him as an ‘un-Polish’ director doing the bidding of ‘foreign’ powers. … What amazes me is how people like my parents – who remember the times portrayed in the film – are made to look at all this anew, from a different perspective … Pawlikowski manages to unearth some true beauty and great emotions … And the MUSIC! It is mesmerizing, and when Joanna Kulig sings the village song “Dwa serduszka, cztery oczy” – wow, I had goosebumps. …
The story is a deeply personal one for Pawlikowski: his own mother Zula was 17 when she ran away from home to become a ballet dancer; his father was ten years older. ‘They split up, got together, betrayed each other and then got together again; then split up again and eventually ended up together.’ (from an interview by Joseph Walsh on theskinny.co.uk, 3/8/18)
HoneyBee: So beautiful: funny and fast and sad and slow all together.
I believe our verdict is unanimous: terrific!