Two very different films released this year – A Star Is Born and Cold War – explore very similar themes of two artists trying to protect their love from the emotional maelstrom created by their egos, insecurities, ambitions and ennui.
A Star is Born is riding a wave of critical acclaim and audience love. It has a very good chance to earn Oscar nominations for actors Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, as well as for Mr. Cooper as a director. If so, he would join the likes of Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner who have made the leap from acting super-stardom to distinction in directing. There are many levels on which A Star Is Born excels, considering it’s the fourth time this story has been filmed (1937, 1954 and 1976 previously). Bradley Cooper had to bring something new to the table; he contemporized the setting, but he also created a viewing experience that brings the viewer into the personal space of the protagonists, compared to its predecessors. The first hour in particular, is pure movie magic, taking the audience through Jackson Maine’s post-concert, alcohol-fueled runabout to his (and the audience’s) discovery of Ally’s raw talent singing La Vie en rose at a drag bar, followed by their tentative exploration of a shared love of music while sitting in a car park – I would have been happy if the entire movie had just continued that car park scene. Maine takes Ally under his wing and as her star rises and she creates her own artistic identity, he spirals into depression, anger self-doubt and finally, self-loathing. They try to reconnect, but can their love for each other overcome the external and internal forces that are pulling them apart? Perhaps the bigger question is, how much of their love is genuinely for the other person and how much of it is for the idea of who that other person is?
These are the same questions that crop up while watching the Polish film Cold War. Unlike A Star Is Born, this film is directed by an experienced director Pawel Pawlikowski, who has been winning awards for his work for the past two decades, including Best Director at Cannes for this film. Likewise, lead actors Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot have been around for several years and have won recognition for their acting previously. Kot plays Wiktor, a music director working for the Communist regime, traveling through the Polish countryside in 1949 with his colleagues, looking to recruit raw talent for a folk music and dance show. Among the hundreds of performers they audition is Zula (Joanna Kulig) and you can see that Wiktor is immediately taken up with the young girl, her casual insouciance, her voice and her looks. They start a passionate affair, its turbulence and unpredictability in contrast with the upward trajectory of their professional careers. Unlike A Star Is Born which tracks the relationship of Jackson and Ally in real time in the early part of the movie as well as in other key moments, Cold War follows Zula and Wiktor’s relationship in episodic snapshots over a 15 year period in episodic snapshots. Like billiard balls, they keep crashing into each other every few years, unable to live together and unable to live apart. Unlike the lovers of A Star Is Born, there are no obvious issues of jealousy or ego pulling Zula and Wiktor apart; just personal caprice, impulsive and reckless acts, artistic restlessness and ennui. Which makes their story seem even more tragic.
A Star Is Born is an emotionally traumatic viewing experience, which is an amazing achievement by a first-time director and a first-time actress. Cold War, in the hands of a more experienced director and actors, tells its story using a colder, emotionally distant aesthetic, appropriately shot in crisp black & white. With A Star Is Born, it’s the moments and the emotions – in the car park, singing Shallow for the first time, that disastrous Grammy awards night, Jack begging for forgiveness on his return from rehab – that stay in the viewers memory. With Cold War, it’s the shot composition and visual storytelling – Wiktor and Zula talking in the field, Zula singing while floating in the river, Wiktor in front of a mirror reflecting his troupe celebrating their first show, Wiktor and Zula at the dance club and finally the shot of them looking out onto a barren field – that haunt the viewer.
Both films are well worth watching. A Star Is Born is more accessible and is for the most part, an intensely absorbing viewing experience in spite of its 2 hour 14 minute running time. In contrast, at a brisk 89 minutes, Cold War does not tax the viewer’s patience, but is made for the head rather than for the heart.