Stars: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Jeanne Balibar
Writer-director Pawlikowski’s follow-up to his low-key masterpiece ‘Ida’ charts an ill-starred romance over a tempestuous period, running from the end of the 40s to the beginning of the 60s. Wiktor (Kot) is a jazz-loving pianist and one half of a duo of musical directors. The other half is Irene (Kulesza), his lover. Together they roam the Polish countryside in search of singers for their folk ensemble, set up by the authorities to tour Europe to promote traditional culture. On one such excursion Wiktor spots young woman Zula (Kulig), not necessarily a natural traditional singer but charismatic and passionate. As they travel the continent, visiting cities on both sides of the Iron Curtain, an affair commences. When the Soviets hijack the troupe to use as a propaganda exercise, Wiktor defects but Zula stays on. Cut to about four years later where Wiktor is working as a pianist in a Paris nightclub and in a relationship with bohemian poetess Juliette (Balibar). A brief appearance by Zula in Paris sets the affair in motion again. It’s stunningly photographed in crisp back and white, while an immaculately selected range of music from folk to classical from jazz to rock and roll, is skilfully deployed to convey the milieu and characters’ state of mind. A blast of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is particularly effective, sending a jolt of modernist electricity to the unfolding events. The leads are excellent with Kot’s Wiktor exuding a matinee idol glamour, and Kulig’s capricious Zula a firecracker energy. Despite a brief running time, the picture achieves a rare thematic richness with Pawlikowski economically rendering the story like a fine pencil sketch. As with Wiktor’s beloved jazz it’s sometimes the omissions that are as eloquent as what remains. Undoubtedly this is one of 2018’s very best films.