Writer-director Malgorzata Szumowska is no stranger to the BFI London Film Festival. A number of her films have been invited over the years; indeed, she was in attendance at the 2019 edition with her first English-language film, The Other Lamb. Even her very first feature, Happy Man, made for Polish television in 2000, screened at the LFF. I remember it well, because – having seen the film at the Rotterdam Film Festival and recommended it to the LFF team – it was I who was asked to host the on-stage Q&As with Szumowska after the London screenings.
That led to my following her career closely over the last 2 decades, during which her films have won many festival prizes. She has steadily established herself not only as Poland’s leading writer-director but also as one of the most dependably interesting and rewarding filmmakers working in Europe today.
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One of the most impressive things about Szumowska’s work is that every film feels absolutely fresh and, in many ways, quite different from its predecessors. Her flair for imaginative invention is such that her movies have an unusual capacity to surprise. But at the same time, from Happy Man right up to and including Never Gonna Snow Again, which will be screening at the LFF shortly after its premiere in the main competition at the Venice Film Festival, it has always been possible to discern her preoccupations.
Each of her features, in their different ways, deals with the human body, illness – be it physiological or psychological – and the effect on our lives wreaked by the inevitable fact of human mortality. Each, too, deals with the troubled relationships individuals have with their families and friends and with society at large; and each, to some extent, reflects the state of the world, not least that of Poland.
If all this makes Szumowska’s films sound overly solemn and serious, it shouldn’t. There’s often a playful, mischievous wit at play in her work, and however dark or ‘important’ the material may sometimes be, it benefits from being handled with an admirably light touch. That said, her success hasn’t always brought her universal popularity in her own country. She has frequently had to suffer complaints that her films fail to paint her country and her compatriots in the rosiest colours. Of course, they are not ‘failing’ to do that, because she isn’t even trying to glamorise Poland and the Poles but to show them as she sees them, warts and all.
This can lead to controversy. In the Name Of (2013), dealing with a priest who happens to be gay, was bound to meet opposition in a country as Catholic as Poland, but many of Szumowska’s other films, touching as they occasionally do on snobbery and superstition, deceit and delusion, prejudice and pretension, have also ruffled a few feathers.
The new film, then, is true to Szumowska form, even though – also characteristically – it feels as if it’s exploring new territory in terms of narrative style, even genre. For Never Gonna Snow Again feels at times like a fable, notwithstanding that it’s set in a slightly stylised version of today’s world.
It centres on Zenia, a young Ukrainian living in Poland who was born near Chernobyl exactly 7 years after the nuclear disaster. Although his own home is a cramped city apartment, he works as a masseur to the wealthy inhabitants of a suburban gated community.
Many of his clients claim to believe he may have special powers. His hands apparently help them deal with the various problems in their comparatively cosseted lives. And certainly when we the audience first encounter him walking by night into the city, there is something strange about him. Whatever, like the mysterious stranger played by Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), Zenia does have an effect on those he meets – and as we witness his interactions with the Polish bourgeoisie, we come to see that they’re not always as discreet or as charming as they might be.
As ever, the film looks terrific. Szumowska is again working with long-time collaborator Michal Englert, who shot all of her features and co-wrote In the Name of, Body (2015), Mug (2018) and Never Gonna Snow Again; this time Englert also gets a co-directing credit. It also manages to be both funny and touching… but never sentimental. Szumowska simply doesn’t do sentimental, notwithstanding the potentially mawkish pitfalls, effortlessly sidestepped, of films about loss and grief like Happy Man, 33 Scenes from Life (2008), Body or Mug.
With its sometimes unsettling narrative ellipses and occasional surreal, even fantastic moments, this is bold, thought-provoking fare that remains engrossing and enjoyable throughout. But what’s perhaps most impressive, in the end, is the skill with which the film’s diverse elements – the satire and social critique, the sci-fi elements and surrealism – are skilfully combined to make a coherent whole, a seriocomic fable about the world today that subtly gets wider in its import as it progresses towards its unexpected end.