For a black-and-white film with such an unsparing, unsentimental approach, this romance manages to feel lush, passionate, and stark all at once. Cold War draws its power from the authentic-feeling mistakes its main characters make. The characters and their story were (very) loosely inspired by director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski's parents, so perhaps it's from there that the ring of truth comes. Wiktor and Zula have their chances, it seems, and they clearly see each other as the love of each other's lives. They have the significant obstacle of the actual Cold War between them, but the greatest impediment turns out to be themselves. That they want to be together, need to be together, but can't work it out even when it's possible will feel familiar to most adult viewers. But unlike, say, La La Land (another romance about artists driven apart), Cold War sells the audience on how much the protagonists mean to each other. It's no romantic fantasy. It's smudged by inconvenient and sometimes ugly reality. That they can't stay together really feels like a tragedy -- but a familiar one.
The excellent cinematography is supple -- austere when it needs to be and richly detailed, even within cold and stark environments, when it wants to be. It embraces the romantic luster of Paris without resorting to cliché. Music also illuminates the experience, from Polish folk musicians in village streets to jazz combos in Paris nightclubs. One song repeats several times, changing its arrangement and sophistication (and even language) as the couple does. As Wiktor, Kot is sympathetic as a passionate man blown about by circumstance. As Zula, Kulig smolders. She's hot, she's cold, she's unpredictable, she's unpredictably sincere. In Cold War, Pawlikowski masterfully marshals cinematic tools to craft an indelible kind of valentine to a key chapter in his family history.