▶︎ Never Gonna Snow Again will screen online in the BFI London Film Festival on 11 October 2020.
☞ Reviewed from the 2020 Venice Film Festival. See also Venice 2020: the best of times amid the worst of times and Six of the best at Venice 2020
At the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) – spoiler alert! – a young girl moves a glass of milk across a table using only her mind. Her powers, the film suggests, are a mutation caused by her vicinity to the alien-infected Zone.
The Zone itself feels like a prescient foreshadowing of another area of the Soviet Union which would in turn become forbidden: the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, aka the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation or just The Zone. It is from Chernobyl’s service town of Pripyat that the protagonist of Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert’s Never Gonna Snow Again hales. Played with lithe charisma by Alec Utgoff, Zhenia is first seen walking through a deserted city in Poland carrying an unwieldy object under his arm which looks like it might be a musical instrument. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a folding bed on which Zhenia will practice his arts as a mystic masseur.
Following Body (2015), Mug (2018) and last year’s English-language outing The Other Lamb, Szumowska’s latest collaboration with her regular DP and writing/producing partner Englert – here co-credited as director – is a hypnotically magical fable, a beguiling satire of atomised middle class life. With its story of the transformative presence of a stranger on an elite community, it calls to mind films such as Theorem (1968) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), but whereas Terence Stamp’s and Nick Nolte’s respective characters shake up the bourgeoisie with their liberating sexual allure, the relatively chaste Zhenia seems to genuinely wish to sooth his clients with his magic hands. That doesn’t stop the clients lusting after him, whether it’s the sozzled desperate housewife Maria (Maja Ostaszewska) or the young wife of his terminally ill client Wika (Weronika Rosati). Cynical widow Eva, played by Pavel Pawlikowski favourite Agata Kulesza, seems at first immune to his charms, before propositioning him straight out.
Despite some broad dog fart humour – there’s also an adorably foul-mouthed child – and an increasingly predictable vignette structure, the film retains a wistful power in its mixture of fantasy and down-to-earth reality. Zhenia might be a visiting angel but he is still an immigrant, talked down to by his employers, living in grotty Soviet-era housing and getting drunk with the countryman gatekeeper. But he is remarkably free of animus. Although able to exert complete control over his clients, essentially knocking them out with a click of his fingers, he doesn’t take advantage of this talent for malign purposes. Nor is he a Magic Christian-style trickster. The one liberty he takes is when he pirouettes through his client’s Mcmansion while she reclines in a trance. When interrupted by the client’s son, an unfazed Zhenia segues from ballet to rock ’n’ roll.
With a cinematographer as co-director, it’s unsurprising that the look of the film is vivid and occasionally quite beautiful. The poverty of Zhenia’s lodgings contrasts with the artificial life of the suburbs – a patch of identikit homes only a step away from last year’s Vivarium – and the amber hued recollections of Zhenia’s childhood. His hypnosis sends his patients into a dusty forest reminiscent of the Upside Down in Stranger Things (the third season of which Utgoff starred in).
If the film has a flaw it is that the satirical exaggeration of the vignettes is less engaging than Zhenia’s own story. Although he is a charismatic blank to his clients, he gradually becomes more filled-in for the audience. He is a man who is full of yearning for a past, literally disappearing into a picture on the wall at one stage.
Utgoff’s performance is a highlight of the film. Possessing an easy charisma and a physical presence of both grace and solidity, he is both credible as a man of power and a marginalised stateless worker, depending on the neurotic whims of his clientele.
The irony is that no matter how hard Zhenia tries, his clients ultimately don’t want to be cured. After one particularly deep session, Zhenia is perplexed to see Wika reach straight for the sauvignon once more. He might be able to stop time, move glasses on tables with his mind like the girl from Stalker, even vanish completely, but this is one masseur who can’t guarantee a happy ending.