Zhenia arrives on the exclusive estate

Malgorzata Szumowska has seen her profile as a leading European filmmaker gradually rise since her first feature in 2000. Twenty years later Never Gonna Snow Again won a prize at Venice and was recognised at several international festivals. For this feature she co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced with her long-term collaborator Michal  Englert who also photographed the film. ‘Magic realism’ is one term that critics have used to describe the film and comedy-drama seems to be a standard categorisation. I’ve read a few reviews that don’t seem to do the film justice but I recognise that it is very hard to pin down.

The central character Zhenia (Alec Utgoff) appears from out of the dark forest and swans past a long queue waiting to see an official about staying in the country. The rather stern official soon succumbs to Zhenia’s ‘powers’ and, after giving him a gentle head massage, Zhenia stamps his own papers and sets off for a communist-era block of flats reminiscent of the setting for one of Kieslowski’s Dekalog tales. We then see him approaching a new estate of identical large mansions. The estate has a security gateway with guards who sometimes rove round the streets on Segway scooters. Zhenia carries the tools of his trade – a folding treatment table and mat. He has clearly been here before and the door of each mansion he visits is opened to him, mainly, but not entirely by the wealthy women on the estate. He seems to be a skilful masseur with extra powers, including hypnosis, as we discover later.

Zhenia puts Ewa (Agata Kulesza) into a hypnotic trance

All his work seems to be on the estate and he returns at night to his cell-like room in the high-rise block. Gradually we learn something about his background. He was born in Chernobyl in the Ukraine SSR of the Soviet Union. His mother died of the effects of radiation from the reactor explosion when he was seven. His memory of the ash is remembered as being like falling snow. He experiences some xenophobic discrimination, but not from his grateful clients. He is also wary of immigration officers who seem to be lying in wait for him. Many reviews refer to the estate as ‘suburbia’ but for me the suburbs are the parts of a town or city characterised by dull conformity – although there can always be eccentricities behind the doors and windows and hoses are at least usually painted different colours or have different gardens. The mansions here are certainly uniform in design but the residents appear to relish not privacy but display as the massage table is often erected in front of the large windows which are often not curtained – and quite often the ‘clients’ are semi-naked. There are roughly half a dozen regular clients and Zhenia’s ‘treatment’ generally results in relief from depression or grief and sometimes a form of bliss follows.

Maria (Maja Ostaszewska) is also hypnotised on the massage table

Never Gonna Snow Again is beautifully photographed by Englert in ‘Scope. It is presented with a mainly slow pace, often with fades to black between scenes and with a classical score, including Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Shostakovich as well as modern pieces. Utgoff is very impressive and I was surprised to learn that he was educated and trained in England. The other leading players, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati and Katarzyna Figura as the women and Andrzej Chyra and Lukasz Simlat as the male clients are also excellent.The estate, though the houses represent a real location, are somehow surreal. I was reminded of futuristic estates such as the one in The Truman Show (US 1998) or the way Truffaut presented Roehampton in Fahrenheit 451 (UK 1966). There is just something unsettling about uniformity and exclusiveness. There are various references to Zhenia’s magical powers, including, as one reviewer noted, a kinetic power that is a reminder of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, as are some of the flashbacks to his childhood. But the real question for most audiences is what does all this mean?

A flashback to young Zhenia and his mother

In an interview at Venice, Szumowska said that it isn’t meant to be a specific metaphor for Poland, but rather for Eastern Europe in general. This makes sense. There seems to be a disregard for religion and more reliance not just on the masseur but also alcohol, synthetic recreational drugs and new diets amongst the bored women and retired men on the estate. There are links to American culture but also to French culture in the private school which the residents’ children attend. The setting appears to be in the weeks before Christmas with a highly commercialised and odd representation of American Halloween customs and similarly American-style universal Christmas preparations. An official sounding title suggests that the last snow will fall in 2025, which might be an eco-warning linked to other events in the film. I’m not sure what it all means but I watched and enjoyed the film and I agree with some commentators that while in the international marketplace it seems best described as an arthouse film without a clear narrative resolution, it could still be enjoyed by a popular genre audience. There are genuine comic moments among the more generalised ‘disturbance’ but perhaps slightly fewer sex scenes than I anticipated from the director of Elles (France 2011). I note that it did get a brief release aimed at Polish audiences in the UK during 2021. Such screenings were becoming quite regular before Brexit and the pandemic. I’m intrigued as to what is happening re Polish releases in the UK now but I’m still not sure about returning to multiplexes. Never Gonna Snow Again is now on MUBI and well worth watching. Here’s the trailer from the film’s sales agent.