Writers and Directors: Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert
The title may suggest that it will never snow again, but Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert’s icy film about a middle-class gated community in Poland certainly offers some dry wintry chills. Battling alcoholism, drug addiction and boredom, the residents in this Stepford estate get their thrills from the hands of their Ukrainian masseur, Zhenia, who patiently listens to all their bourgeois problems. But Never Gonna Snow Again does more than just poke fun at manners and hypocrisy; it reveals the real people behind the stereotypes. It may be one of the best films at this year’s London Film Festival.
Born near Chernobyl, Zhenia may have secret powers. In the first scene we see him hypnotise a Government official, and while he is sleeping, Zhenia forges the official’s signature in order that he can become a resident of Poland, his adopted country. Zhenia’s talents don’t stop at hypnotism; he is fluent in every language, and he can move a glass from one side of a table to another telekinetically. This may sound as if Szumowska’s film is part fantasy, but Never Gonna Snow Again is otherwise eerily real.
He seems to visit the housing estate, a monotony of identical white detached houses with delusions of classicism, most days. A neurotic mother, whose young daughter calls her a slut, is one of Zhenia’s first customers of the day. Arriving in the middle of the school run – all the local children go to a French school, another sign of the community’s affectations – Zhenia looks for space for his massage table in amidst the detritus of a party the night before. Straight after the massage the mother downs glasses of wine, and lights a cigarette.
All the inhabitants of this supposed utopia appear to smoke, even the man who’s receiving chemo for his cancer. He says that Zhenia’s massages give him energy and that they are slowly erasing the sickness, but while Zhenia gives him hope, it’s unlikely that even with his super powers forged in Chernobyl, he can offer him a cure. Solemnly, Zhenia trudges off to the next house and the next lonely resident, carrying his portable massage table like an altar.
Of course, most of the women fancy him but Zhenia has a trick to deal with this attention, and so he’s not quite the pool guy beloved by Hollywood wives and feared by Hollywood husbands. As Zhenia, Alec Utgoff says very little, but his face clearly shows his empathy to his clients, going out of his way to help them. That he has his own secrets and longings is clear to see despite the fact that his face is often an enigmatic blank. Alone in his flat in the city, his past troubles him, but in the estate he acts selflessly.
His trips from the city to its outskirts are rendered stunning in Michal Englert’s cinematography, and at times the gated community looks like an architect’s model, pushing the film to the finest edges of surrealism. But despite Szumowska’s dreamlike touches Never Gonna Snow Again always feels genuine, and Utgoff’s performance pulls the viewer in as a witness to these strange, but uncannily familiar, lives.
With quiet echoes of M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable – although Never Gonna Snow Again is a much better film – Zhenia becomes a kind of saviour for the clients, like a Mary Poppins for broken adults. Surprising and desolate, this film is both a bruising satire and a study of modern day loneliness.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October