YOU may hear faint echoes of “La La Land” and “Chico & Rita” in Pawel Pawlikowski’s music-based tragicomedy, in that it charts the on-off relationship of a talented male pianist/composer and a magnetic female performer. But the Polish-British writer-director of “My Summer of Love” and the Oscar-winning “Ida” has composed something unique. The best entry so far at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Cold War” is a moving and gorgeously shot period romance which recreates the mid-20th-century in flawless, unshowy detail, and which asks which siren song calls most seductively: art, love, freedom or home. Mr Pawlikowski doesn’t play a single bum note.

In its opening scenes, it looks as if “Cold War” is going to be an Eastern European answer to Alan Parker’s “Fame”. The film’s rakish, middle-aged hero, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), is forming a state-sponsored folk-music ensemble in 1949. His job is to gather 20 or 30 singers and dancers from all over rural Poland, install them in a tumbledown stately home, and arrange and rehearse their peasant songs until they are ready to put on prestigious concerts, thus selling a tidied-up version of the nation’s cultural identity both to the wider world and to war-damaged Poland itself. In short, he has to make music which is Polish, but with polish.

It’s up to the viewer to judge how seriously Wiktor takes his assignment. Unlike his right-hand woman, Irena (Agata Kulesza, possessor of the hardest hard stare since Paddington), he has learnt to keep his opinions to himself. But as his students hone their heartbroken laments and their vigorous, stompy dances, Wiktor is drawn to Zula (the terrific Joanna Kulig), a tough blonde singer who has more ambition and more secrets than any of her peers. She is drawn to him, too, not least because the tall and wolfish Mr Kot would have been cast as James Bond if he had been born in Britain. “Are you interested in my talent, or in me in general?” asks Zula during one flirtatious singing lesson. Well, we all know the answer to that one.

Unfortunately, Zula has also caught the piggy eye of a Communist Party stooge (Boris Szyc) who thinks that the ensemble’s repertoire should include some catchy numbers about Stalin’s agriculture reforms. The lovers are tempted to defect whenever they perform in or near western Europe. But how would they fare as exiles in other countries and with other musical genres? As fraught as their life in Poland may be, would they be as suited to the smoky jazz clubs of Paris as they are to the concert halls of Warsaw? And, considering that they’re not exactly the cheeriest or most effusive people in the world, could they be happy anywhere? (Zula and Wiktor were inspired by Mr Pawlikowski’s parents, he has said. “They were both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a never-ending disaster.”)

One of the film’s many intoxicating pleasures is how unpredictable it is. The auditions and rehearsal scenes—that is, the “X-Factor” /“Poland’s Got Talent” section—are left behind with surprising haste, and from then on “Cold War” never stops moving. Every so often, Mr Pawlikowski cuts to a black screen, and when the picture returns, you never know how many years will have passed, or which city Wiktor and Zula will be in, or whether or not they will still be an item.

Wherever or whenever they are, though, “Cold War” is always a spikily funny yet deeply sympathetic study of its conflicted characters, and it looks fantastic. Like “Ida”, the film is shot by Lucasz Zal in crisp black and white, with contrasts as stark as they are on a page of sheet music; the blacks are “none more black”, as Spinal Tap would say, and the whites are luminous. It’s one of those rare films that you could pause at random at any moment, and have an image that’s striking enough to put on the poster.

It is also shot in narrow “Academy format”—ie, the screen is almost square—which is appropriate for a film with the economy and immediacy of a foot-tapping pop hit. Mr Pawlikowski’s ambitious saga spans several years and visits several countries. But as sagas go, it’s short and to the point, with much left unexplained and unspoken, and a brisk 84-minute running time. Yet however far “Cold War” ranges, it stays focused on Wiktor and Zula and the sweet music they make together. You may well have the urge to rewatch it as soon as it’s finished, just as you’d want to listen to a favourite record again straight after the last track has faded.