During one of the many massages Zhenia gives throughout the film, his client Ewa interrupts him. She directs him to a piece of art hanging on the wall, an abstract work consisting of layered circles, and asks him what he sees. “Circles,” he replies. “I don’t care about the circles, I see a point,” she fires back. “I see a point, you see circles,” she repeats.
Never Gonna Snow Again is a film that wants you to vibe with it. It hypnotizes with arresting imagery and unpredictable character interactions, taking its audience on an enigmatic and atmospheric exploration into capitalism, climate change, and spirituality. Co-directors Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert create a disjointed journey that appeals to film lovers and anyone else who is willing to surrender themselves to experience over plot.
Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a mysterious masseuse from Ukraine strolls into a gated community in Poland. With a folded table slung over his shoulder, Zhenia makes the rounds to the cookie-cutter mini-mansions where the upper-middle class inhabitants reveal themselves to him. Zhenia’s healing hands extend to supernatural abilities that he uses to further soothe his clients’ troubles.
The community resembles any number of planned McMansion collectives that can be seen from the interstate across the United States. The houses are pristine and white with doorbells that play simplified melodies of compositions that would be on a CD called ‘Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music’. Their relative grandeur is a perfect status symbol for the fresh capitalism of Poland that models itself on Western economies.
Democracy, and its inevitable companion of capitalism, are new to Poland. It was the first of the Eastern Bloc to transition from its communist government. “After 1989, we had this period of wild capitalism, this crazy manic competition, which brought a lot of freedom but has made people feel less secure,” said Szumowska.
Along with materialism and competition come feelings of detachment and emptiness. Surrounded by their veneers of sophistication, the ensemble of residents sink into the ennui within them; desperately trying to fill the hole with more symbols of their financial success. Looking at their lifestyles, it’s difficult to place the characters in Poland. They could be living in almost any westernized country. The manicured appearance that belies a melancholy interior resembles the suburban decadence from Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.
One by one, Zenia lies them down on his table, kneads out their anxieties using his muscular arms, and draws out the rest using his special powers. He’s a mysterious figure to them. Raised in the city famous for the Chernobyl disaster, he connects them to levels of consciousness that were previously inaccessible.
Englert, also the cinematographer, depicts these surreal experiences with dreamlike visuals. Shimmering light, weightless movement, and elements of nature are straight from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Both Szumowska and Englert credit Tarkovsky as inspiration for the film.
His affinity for the natural world provides a powerful reference point for a film that weaves climate change into its tapestry. The unhappiness that comes with material consumption adds insult to injury when taking into account the adverse effects on the environment. Trees are cut down and chopped to make way for more mini-mansions. Global warming is alluded to by characters who believe there will be no more snow. Snow has another meaning as it refers to the radioactive particles from the Chernobyl disaster, a concentrated example of the destruction imposed upon the planet. Zhenia, who first emerges from the forest, heals his clients by returning them to verdant nature.
Another Tarkovsky influence is the unimportance of traditional narrative. Szumowska said his movies are “less stories than poetry or prayer.” She said it’s the type of cinema that was almost erased in Poland in the 1990s when everyone tried to copy the American style. The films produced reflected the greater movement in culture toward western homogeneity. The responses to these drastic and fast-paced changes range from happy acquiescence to hateful contempt.
Like many European countries, Poland is experiencing a rise in right-wing authoritarianism. The movement brought a wave of nationalist sentiment; unhappy with the European Union’s outside influence and promoting a xenophobic agenda. The community is a microcosm of the country at large, complete with border patrol in the form of a security guard at the gate. The residents speak of the troubling newcomers who move in after they have.
One of Zhenia’s clients disparages Pakistani and Ukrainian immigrants but assures him he’s ‘one of the good ones.’ Some of his clients send their children to a French-language school. It’s a snobbish attempt at projected elegance the directors satirize to highlight its impracticality. English is more widely used than French and Ukrainian has more utility as, like Zhenia, many Ukrainians work for Polish households.
Utgoff was reluctant when first presented with the role. The Stranger Things actor was dubious about playing such an unconventional character in an art-house movie, but Szumowska convinced Utgoff she could work with him to get the performance she wanted. She made good on her word as Utgoff exudes the mystical confidence needed for the role. The rest of the cast deserves acclaim for populating the sad and misguided community, particularly Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati, and Łukasz Simlat.
Like its main character, Never Gonna Snow Again is inscrutable. Szumowska and Englert are masterful creators of intrigue. Each scene lures you in; cultivating vigilant curiosity. Careful not to come across as too austere, the humor they employ is organic and effective. Englert gives entire frames to the contorted faces made by the Zhenia’s face-down clients and an apathetic pup gets a nice rub down.
The film premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival and was Poland’s official submission to the 93rd Academy Awards.
“Our goal, really, was to make a film for cinema lovers,” said Szumowska. Those who enjoy Tarkovsky and Bernardo Bertolucci will find Never Gonna Show Again a thoughtful update to their filmmaking styles. But a knowledge of cinematic history isn’t necessary to enjoy the film, or to be a cinema lover. Every viewer simply needs to assume the role of Zhenia’s client. Just relax and know that you’re in capable, magic hands.
Never Gonna Snow Again opens Friday, July 30 in select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide.