The almost square aspect ratio took some getting used to, as did director Pawel Pawlikowski’s penchant for framing close-ups of his subjects in the lower part of the screen, but such quirks, as intended, intensify the drama. Shot in luminous, richly textured black-and-white, the obsessive, sometimes damaging romance between Zula and Wiktor (Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot) is set behind the Iron Curtain in authoritarian, post-War Poland. Zula is one of a number of youngsters chosen by the State to study at its music and dance academy. Wiktor, having been on the road recording regional folk songs, is a teacher who falls under her pretty blonde spell, although initially I found it hard to accept that the teenage girl would be won over by the not particularly handsome older man. Zula, however, is a character given to wild impulse – in one scene she jumps into a river fully clothed and sings to the sky as she floats downstream (it’s a beautiful moment). As time passes, the mismatched couple’s love grows, to the extent that they will follow each other across borders, to France and Yugoslavia, so that they might satisfy their hopeless desire. This is a wonderfully brooding, smoky movie of sultry moods and stark realpolitik. Kaczmarek (Boris Szyk), an oily apparatchik, represents the Communist regime’s ever-present watchfulness as he monitors their every move, while Michel (Cédric Kahn), a French filmmaker, personifies the decadent West. The music – and there is a lot of it – is fab, especially in the early stages when the songs of the peasantry are performed in situ, with all their crude beauty. And just when you worry that the soundtrack might be a bit ‘samey’, Zula trips the light fantastic in a Paris bar while Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock is blasted from a jukebox. The star-crossed fate of Zula and Wiktor is forever in the balance and if the film’s aftertaste is of nihilism it is merely the price you pay for sharing such an all-consuming passion.
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