Never Gonna Snow Again (2020)
Directors: Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert
This haunting, meditative movie got under my skin even as I wasn’t totally sure what it was trying to say, and sometimes felt that the filmmakers were also unsure. More often than not, scenes seemed to exist to establish a certain mood rather than to advance a story. But I didn’t care. The images were strange and beautiful, tinged with magic and sci-fi, and posing questions about life after death, the nature of healing, and climate change. Written and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and her long-time DP Michal Englert, the film was Poland’s entry for the Oscars for Best Foreign Picture. The story centers on a masseuse, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a Ukranian immigrant whose work takes him to a gated suburb on the outskirts of a large city. Zhenia goes from house to house carrying his folding massage table and getting an intimate look into the houses that all look the same from the outside, but whose occupants each carry their own specific pain. In its simplest telling, it’s a story about upper-middle class suburban life, with Zhenia as the all-seeing narrator who draws connections between the families’ shared spiritual malaise. But beneath that structure is a darker and more mysterious tale about humanity’s relationship to a dying planet.
It’s obvious from the beginning that Zhenia is more than just a masseuse. There’s something magical about him. He obtains his work visa by casting a spell on the bureaucrat who remarks that he feels strange around Zhenia, but that Zhenia also seems like someone he’s met before. This is Zhenia’s special skill: he makes people feel comfortable while also feeling transported to another time and place. It also helps that he is very beautiful, with a dancer’s poise and physique. Utgoff will apparently be familiar to fans of the TV show Stranger Things, but I had never seen him before and was reminded of Patrick Swayze’s mellow charisma. Like Swayze, Utgoff has a slightly feminine quality and expresses himself through his physical presence more than his line readings. His female clients are all a little bit in love with him, but he seems to have little desire for them, or for anyone. There’s something otherworldly about him, and early on, it is revealed that he’s a survivor of the Chernobyl disaster. His dreams are haunted by his mother, who died from exposure to radioactive elements, and by the radioactive “snow” that fell upon his town.
Although the themes of this movie are heavy, there is a lot of wit in the art direction and writing. I was fascinated by the portrayal of the gated community where all the houses are palatial, but also kind of boring. Everyone sends their children to the same French private school and all the husbands leave for work early in the morning. It’s amusing the way each household tries to differentiate themselves through their choice of front-door wreath, something Zhenia can’t help but notice when he’s waiting to be let inside. Once indoors, Zhenia is privy to everyone’s habits, which are often self-destructive. It’s a world of women and children, and it’s described very well, even in its more cliched observations. Yes, there’s a day-drinking mother. Yes, there’s a woman having an affair while her husband is at work. Yes, there’s a brainy kid making drugs and selling them to adults. But there is a sense of absurdity to everything, a kind of detachment and lack of judgement because we’re seeing everyone through Zhenia’s eyes, and Zhenia has seen a lot. In the film’s penultimate scene, which takes place at the children’s French school, I wondered who Zhenia really was and what his magic foretold. And when the final title card appeared, I could only really say of this movie what the bureaucrat says of Zhenia in the opening sequence: “I feel quite strange around you.”
Never Gonna Snow is having its NY Premiere as part of BAM’s Kino Polska: New Polish Cinema film series, screening from April 30th – May 6th.