NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN – Review by Marietta Steinhart

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A stranger walks into a Polish town.

There is a spellbinding sense of fairy tale realism to Małgorzata Szumowska’s latest, her first co-directed film with long-time cinematographer Michał Englert. Never Gonna Snow Again is loaded with social commentary – it’s wicked and quietly wonderful.

With nothing but a fold-up table under his arm, a mysterious Ukrainian masseur walks into an anonymous gated Polish community, not unlike American Suburbia in Tim Burton’s gothic fairy tale Edward Scissorhands (1990), a surreal punch at capitalism in the Reagan Era. The bourgeoisie seemingly has it all, yet their lives are empty and grotesque.

And while Johnny Depp’s Edward creates beautiful garden sculptures and unusual haircuts for the deeply bored with his scissor hands, the discreet hero of Małgorzata Szumowska’s new fable, too, does magical things with his hands and brings snow as a gift to unfortunate souls, who are out of touch with the world and themselves.

A lonely housewife (Maja Ostaszewska), who starts jugging white wine in the AM; a father, who suffers from cancer (Łukasz Simlat); a kid from across the street, who sells him MDMA; and a widow (Agata Kulesza), whose dead husband is fertilizing the fir tree outside her house (the film has a wicked sense of humor). It’s an exquisite exercise in modern miserabilism.

Enter Zhenia (the wonderful Alec Utgoff, Stranger Things), who spends his days going from one tedious Stepford-like mansion to another, patiently listening to bourgeois ailments, and providing a brief moment of relief to these residents, who see in Zhenia the Second Coming of Jesus or something – he does wear a golden cross around his neck. “I’ve heard you have great abilities”, an ex-military man says. And it’s true. It’s not clear why, but Zhenia seems to have a mystic touch of some sort, that transports his clients in a state of blissful hypnosis and into a green Grimm-like forest, not unlike the one Zhenia stepped out of at the beginning of this film.

Małgorzata Szumowska, one of Poland’s most prolific directors, and her longtime cinematographer Michał Englert, who is also a director and writer on this project, blur dreamlike fantasies with Zhenia’s childhood near Chernobyl that we see in strange golden flashbacks. His mother died after the nuclear tragedy and 7-year-old Zhenia mistook the radioactive dust for snow, which he believed to have extraordinary powers. Who Zhenia really is, is anyone’s guess. An angel? An alien? An atomic accident? “I know, who he is”, says a girl, “he’s a superhero!” Is he though? Either way, he remains a foreigner.

A foreigner his self-absorbed clients clearly come to depend on – and in one case, even their flatulent bulldogs. Yet they often remind Zhenia of his lower social standing in not so subtle ways, like joking that he may as well be radioactive; mocking him for his alleged simplicity or discussing their distaste for immigrants (only to claim that, they are “very tolerant, too tolerant even”) while gentle Zhenia devotedly massages their feet. They objectify him too, eroticize and exploit him.

Following her English-language film debut The Other Lamb (2019), in which a Charles Manson-like cult figure convinced a group of women that he was their “Sheperd”, Małgorzata Szumowska once again turns out to be a clever societal observer. Never Gonna Snow Again is a complex drama about systemic, environmental and economic change, and change that just won’t come: these people are not happy when conscious – only when massaged into peaceful oblivion. The Polish directing duo has built on themes here explored in Szumowska’s other films such as Elles (2011), The Other Lamb and Mug (2018), timely issues of social class differences, xenophobia and suburban shallowness. And while it should be said that iPads, private French schools and big television sets do not have to lead to spiritual homelessness, it is legitimate to ask the impossible question: What is a life well lived?

With Max Richter’s uncanny Sleep-soundtrack and Shostakovich’ Waltz No.2 (that Stanley Kubrick used famously in Eyes Wide Shut) in the background and shot mainly in melancholic blues, misty greys and forest greens, cinematographer Michał Englert has outdone himself. The first scene sets the tone for the whole film. The silhouette of a man appears in the blue-green-lit woods. It’s Zhenia with the massage table under his arm and we watch him as he walks towards the camera, into a glass elevator, down neon-lit passageways, through a dim tunnel, and out into a deserted Polish city under a clouded sky. Is it a horror film? In a way, yes, but the monster here doesn’t have claws or tentacles. It’s capitalism.

Soviet-born British actor Alec Utgoff plays Zhenia stoically and outlandish and honestly, quite gracefully. At one point Zhenia visits a peep show and he does have sex with a widow (Weronika Rosati), but his inner world remains an enigma. Critics have compared his character to Terence Stamp’s mystery man in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), which is a fair comparison, yet Zhenia is much less interested in these people’s sexual awakenings than Pasolini’s handsome visitor, who literally fucks a family out of its bourgeois funk.

And the snow in the title of the film? Well, it’s also a tale about the things we destroy and lose in our lives, due to climate change (there’s a lot in this film). At one point a girl says to Zhenia, that it’s “never gonna snow again” – until it does.

Not to exhaust the similarity, but at the end of Edward Scissorhands it snows too. When her granddaughter asks Winona Ryder’s Kim, why she is certain Edward is still alive, Kim explains, “Before he came down here, it never snowed. And afterwards, it did.”

The snow stands for hope. But of course, like hope, snow eventually melts.

The New York Premiere of Never Gonna Snow Again was part of BAM’s series “Kino Polska: New Polish Cinema” in partnership with the Polish Cultural Institute New York and co-programmed by Tomek Smolarski. Soon to be released by Kino Lorber in theaters and virtual cinemas.

ABOUT MARIETTA STEINHART: Born and raised in Vienna, Marietta Steinhart is a New York City based film critic, contributing to Zeit Online, among other media, covering US cinema and TV. She’s an esteemed member of The International Federation of Film Critics and a frequent juror in Film Festivals.

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