First Hit: I liked the quality of sets, the black and white photography, and the feel they gave for the time this film covers.
I like good period pieces, and the timing of this story is smack dab in my childhood days. Although it begins before my birth, in the 1940s, it moves through into two additional decades in Poland, Russia, and France.
The feel of the stage shows, the night clubs, and the music really stood out for me. The oppression of the Polish and Russian governments are what the characters played against in choosing their path and livelihoods.
The story is about a Zula (Joanna Kulig) who finds herself auditioning to become one of the state-sponsored singers in a Polish youth group.
The beginning is touching in that a small team of people is combing the countryside looking for authentic voices to sing traditional songs. We follow them as they record these untrained voices in their homes and the fields.
Zula is not one of these country voices. We learn that she has been recently released from jail because she took a knife to her father. And paraphrasing her words when she speaks to Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), one of the school’s music teachers, about why she was in jail; he was mistaking me for my mother, so I took a knife to him to remind him of this.
This statement along with the way Zula teams with another girl to sing a traditional song shows something about her will to survive and the myriad of ways she’ll do it.
Wiktor is the pianist for the music dance school and is impressed with Zula, her voice, and mostly her extra special something. He supports choosing Zula to become part of the stage act. He’s also attracted to her and begins to fall for her romantically. She, in turn, during a walk in the countryside, falls for him as well and here begins their love story for the next twenty or so years.
The film then shows how the stage show moved from being a taste of traditional Poland to a tool used by Stalin and the Polish quasi-government to promote communism. Wiktor cannot take it and decides to defect to France where he can use his musical talents in arranging and musicianship to make a living. He hopes that Zula goes with him.
However, she’s playing it safe and stays with the group but they both pine for each other.
Their love, how they meet up multiple times throughout the film, and the inability to keep their love alive is what this film is about. The oppressiveness of the Cold War is the backdrop for the challenges Zula and Wiktor navigate to stay together.
What didn’t work for me in this film was the editing. Scenes end abruptly, and a new scene begins with little context. It isn’t that the scenes are not within the scope of the film, it was the harsh and jarring way it was cut from one to another.
Kulig was excellent as the strong, apparently aiming to survive, girl/woman who loved Wiktor more than anything because he supported her. Her passion for him on the screen was palpable. Kot as Wiktor was outstanding. His performance as a musician was perfect. I fully believed him as a pianist and his love for Zula. Borys Szyc as Kaczmarek the promoter who was always looking for the angle while being politically on the side that was winning was perfect. He carried the right look and feel for the role. Paweł Pawlikowski wrote and directed this film. As I mentioned, I didn’t like the scene edits, but the writing and overall look and feel to the film was outstanding.
Overall: I can see what this was an Academy Award nominated foreign film from Poland.