Two films showcasing extraordinary camerawork caught my eye today. First up is COLD WAR, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning IDA, which once again offers melancholic reflections on 20th century Polish fate wrapped in a love story spanning three decades. Premiering in competition, this exceptionally good-looking (and sounding), compact (84 min) but rather underwritten film is a worthy Palme d’Or contender, even if it falls somewhat short of post-IDA expectations.
Viktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a sound crew commissioned to recruit the best young performers of traditional Polish folk music from all over the country in 1949. As is common during the Cold War era, such militarily trained troupes would then be sent abroad to perform throughout the Iron Curtain states as symbol of national pride and weapons of cultural propaganda. During the recruiting process, Viktor falls for an unruly but undeniably talented girl named Zula (Joanna Kulig) and decides to keep her on despite a history of lies and violence. A subsequent Stalin-sanctioned gig takes them to East Berlin, where Viktor successfully flees across the border to escape to Paris, while Zula chooses not to join him in spite of his profession of love and insistent pleas. Their paths would cross many times in the ensuing years, ending at a sorrowful, perhaps even surprising place.
Lensed again by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lukasz Zal in black and white, COLD WAR is a visual feast start to finish. Many shots from its Poland-set first act of sprawling snowcapped landscape and elegantly aged structures look like they could have been lifted directly from IDA. As the protagonists’ journey progresses and their circumstances change, however, Zal proves his aesthetic sense applies equally to sun-drenched palazzos in Yugoslavia or the rowdy jazz clubs of Paris. Memorable shots of impeccable composition, texture and lighting are too many to name, but images of an agitated Viktor in the middle of scoring a movie inside a recording studio, his marked silhouette projected onto the accompanying scene shown on the silver screen, or a seductive jazz number performed by the incandescently calm Zula captured in a 360-degree surround shot, shall remain with me for a long time.
The folksy-turned-jazzy soundtrack is also a thing of beauty. At one point at least, which sees Viktor wildly breaking down a standard jazz tune to lead into a classical melody from home, the musical cue also serves essential narrative purposes, mapping out the emotional turmoil of someone where words alone don’t suffice. On the whole, however, I do think some more work could be done on the verbal parts of the movie. The two lovebirds at the center go through a lot both in their romantic lives and how they come to terms with their identities. A screenplay that describes the numerous changes of mind with more conviction would better inform us of the characters’ suffering that renders the dramatic ending unavoidable.
Both leads are excellent. Kot has that old-school movie star charm which he gamely plays up but complements it with a wonderful shade of vulnerability. Kulig dazzles as the poised, fearless, unpredictable Zula. Like a little dynamite she’s ready to light up any scene with the sheer force of her joy, rage or pain. Even when the movie seems to be skipping too many steps in establishing their characters’ inner journeys, it’s never less than interesting just to look at these two on screen.
Bowing in the Directors’ Fortnight section, Spanish director Jaime Rosales’ dramatic thriller PETRA wows with its disturbing depiction of a family ruined by its secrets and lies. Wickedly written, smartly acted and expertly photographed, it’s a treat for those who can stomach a higher level of perversity when watching their paternity dramas.
The movie curiously opens with its Chapter II, where we see the titular Petra (Bárbara Lennie) arrives at the guest house of a wealthy artist called Jaume, with whom she’s successfully applied to complete a week-long artistic residency. Along with Petra we meet Jaume’s frail, suspiciously chirpy wife Marisa, their son Lucas, the house staff and finally, Jaume himself. It’s not until later that we get to know the man of the house, however, someone described by his own son as “cruel”. And boy is that an understatement. In subsequent chapters the film describes in a patient, dispassionate manner the sadistic way Jaume treats all those around him, before we learn that Petra has come to his family with her own agenda. Nastiness ensues.
Divided into seven chapters carefully arranged to mess with the audience’s perspective, PETRA is one of those films which know that they have gasp-worthy twists up their sleeve and play it extra cool. While it might feel a bit flat at first for the decidedly deliberate pace, a foreboding sense of evil is ever present, thanks in no small part to French cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s hypnotic work. Louvart has been steadily accumulating an impressive body of work both in Europe and the States, including shooting two of the most striking American indies of the past years, DARK NIGHT (2016) and BEACH RATS (her collaboration with Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, HAPPY AS LAZZARO, is in Cannes competition this year). The way she operates the camera here – often snaking its way slowly towards the protagonists before the actual scene is revealed and moving calmly away from an ongoing scene, leaving faces and voices conspicuously behind – is unusual, intriguing, endlessly suggestive. By manipulating the rhythm of camera movement and the focus of our gaze, she adds a layer of cinematic expression all her own.
Lennie is also having a good year in Cannes, appearing in a key role as Jarvier Bardem’s character’s wife in the opener EVERYBODY KNOWS. In PETRA we see even more of what this engaging, soulful actress can do. Playing someone who’s out to get answers by any means possible and then has to suffer for what she finds, she never resorts to over-dramatization and helps anchor a movie with some loco plot twists in reality. Her committed, understated lead performance is elevated by a solid ensemble cast in a horrific story where neither the monster nor the victims ever raise their voice.