London Film Festival 2020
A black comedy with a twist of the surreal, Never Gonna Snow Again sees Polish-auteur Małgorzata Szumowska (co-directing with Michał Englert) expanding her cinematic palette to a strange effect. Telling the story of a Ukrainian immigrant masseuse named Zhenia (Alec Utgoff) who touches, both metaphorically and literally, upon the lives of a gated middle-class community in Poland, this is an oddball story that never presses deep enough.
Szumowska establishes a strange, magical surrealist vibe from the off, with the immigrant Zhenia managing to hypnotize a government bureaucrat through the power of the Russian-language alone. He is a talented masseuse, easily able to become part of the resident’s lives. Still bearing the scars of a childhood spent in Pripyat, where he survived the horrors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, one cannot tell if he is merely very good at what he does, or has somehow been imbued with semi-magical powers.
The British-Ukranian actor Utgoff — who you may recognize as the Russian heavy from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — does a great job of playing the enigmatic western-film-like outsider, suggesting a lot through physicality, but keeping schtum on his personal background. He is right to be a little wary: while Poland imports thousands of Ukrainian immigrants to fill the gaps of their own depleting workforce, prejudice against outsiders is still rife; shown here by one racist throwaway comment. His use of the Russian language to hypnotize Polish residents suggests that the residue of Chernobyl — a disaster resulting from Soviet incompetence — still leaves an imprint upon the rest of Europe, a fascinating idea that remains frustratingly unfulfilled.
While Szumowska’s previous film Mug was filled with high-energy and lacerating satire, Never Gonna Snow Again is a far more muted affair. The cinematography makes use of saturated colours, the blue-ish fall-setting constantly on the precipice of snowfall. We are told, as the title pronounces, that the chances of snow are becoming less with every year, the film connecting the disaster of Chernobyl — hinted through enigmatic flashbacks — with today’s climate crisis. What it all amounts to, I haven’t the slightest clue.
Without a central conflict, it’s hard to sustain a film through vibes alone. If audiences can’t quite connect with what you are trying to do, it helps to throw in some kind of plot to further illuminate these themes. Szumowska is far more interested in portraiture than narrative, using Zhenia’s travelling occupation as a means to draw out the intricacies and oddities of the neighborhood. While her ability to create distinctive characters — from a stressed-out mother to an old angry military man, to the other Ukrainian working as a security guard, to a middle-aged dog lover — is well done, it’s a shame they can’t be corralled into something that really speaks to contemporary anxieties. Often swinging into sitcom territory, with comic yet not particularly humorous fantasy sequences, it remains a hard film to connect with. While mileage may vary depending on your connection to Poland or Ukraine, Szumowska can’t quite translate her specific ideas into universal concerns.