Wealthy, curtain-twitching suburbanites have formed the basis for many a TV show, but the Polish feature Never Gonna Snow Again proves the setting can be profoundly cinematic and esoteric, as well as darkly funny. Co-directing and writing with director of photography Michal Englert, Malgorzata Szumowska revels in blending genres in this acutely observed festival hit that is Poland’s submission for the 2021 International Oscar race.
Most of the action takes place in a gated community made up of identikit white mansions. We enter along with Zenia (Alec Utgoff), a quiet but charismatic Ukrainian masseur. Arriving in Warsaw with his massage bed slung over his shoulder, he hypnotizes an official into a slumber before rubber-stamping his own permit. As Zenia leaves the man’s office, the camera pans to show the needle of a record player, which magically springs into action.
The music? Shostakovich: the waltz that Stanley Kubrick used memorably in Eyes Wide Shut. The first doorbell Zenia rings plays the same refrain, but it’s tinny, muted, naff—a pretension towards grandeur that provides a comical intro to the wife and mother who answers the door: Maria (Maja Ostaszewska).
Not unlike Kubrick’s protagonists, Maria is a frustrated, privileged person prone to wistful fantasies. Like many in the neighborhood, she looks to Zenia for answers, excited by his gift for healing massage and hypnosis. His powers teeter on the edge of the supernatural, and several characters suggest casually that growing up near Chernobyl could have made him “radioactive.” Flashbacks and dream sequences show Zenia troubled by memories of his mother, who died after the nuclear fallout that 7-year-old Zenia mistook for snow. But his clients never discover his hidden pain. Whether patronizing him, eroticizing him, idolizing him or a combination thereof, they never ask.
As the script explores how these self-absorbed, middle class characters treat their employees, their children and each other, it’s often comic. “My son is very independent,” says Maria proudly of her young child. “He orders Uber Eats all by himself.” Meanwhile, one neighbor (Katarzyna Figura) begs Zenia to massage one of her beloved bulldogs, and another’s teenaged son manufactures MDMA to sell to the cancer-stricken man across the street. Occasionally the film strains reaching for bigger laughs: an inappropriate performance during a school play is overplayed, while still raising a smile.
There are poignant moments, and some sympathy for these lost souls more accustomed to searching for answers at the bottom of a large wine glass. Zenia helps them willingly, gently—perhaps not just for the wad of notes they hand over at the end of the session. His stoical, sad face suggests that he’s searching for something himself. We know it’s linked to his lost mother, but we are left to guess the rest.
Despite—or perhaps because of—its mysteries, this remains a fascinating piece that exerts its own hypnotic power as Zenia goes from door to door, watching his clients strip off both physically and emotionally. Whether focusing on contorted faces mid-massage or the surreal green forests the customers retreat to in their minds, Englert’s cinematography is superb. Never Gonna Snow Again builds on themes raised in his other work with Szumowska, from the intimate Elles to the cult drama The Other Lamb. This collaboration takes the pair’s achievements to another level—and having been chosen as Poland’s Oscar contender, its impact looks set to drift far and wide.