Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Never Gonna Snow Again plays via SIFF’s streaming platform, which is here.
One gets the sense that there are probably two dozen or more movies made in Poland every year that are—at the very least—sharply made, provocative in manner, and perverse as hell. As I do not see two dozen Polish movies every year, I cannot verify this theory, but the history of Polish cinema, and the Polish films I’ve seen at festivals recently (to say nothing of breakthrough arthouse hits like Cold War), have done nothing to weaken this idea.
And here is Never Gonna Snow Again, which fits the bill on all three points listed above. It is not a masterpiece by any means, and perhaps it wears its influences a little too clearly, but the film is a thoroughly engaging little weirdie, made with great rigor and just the right measure of black humor. It begins with an arresting sequence of a man making his way from forest to city (carrying a fold-up massage bed), and then a strange scene in a bureaucratic office. The man is Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a strapping masseur from Ukraine. In the office, surrounded by golden light pouring like a projector beam through the windows, he requests a work permit. The ancient gentleman processing his request senses something odd, and he all but asks Zhenia to release him from these worldly bonds; Zhenia, performing some sort of mind-meld, does exactly that.
This scene is not referred to again, but its slightly supernatural quality (and the sense that Zhenia’s gift could be lethal) hangs around like a pebble in the shoe. In the scenes that follow, Zhenia goes about his regular circuit in a bizarre planned community outside Warsaw, a designed nautilus of streets lined by “classy” mansions identical in their tackiness. Zhenia is well-liked here, and his clientele is a series of people who melt under his empathetic touch: a recovering cancer patient (Lukasz Simlat), whose younger wife (Weronika Rosati) gazes at Zhenia with a mixture of suspiciousness and longing; a recent widow (Agata Kulesza) with a nogoodnik son; a harried mother (Maja Ostaszewska), who casually blurts out her animus toward Ukrainian immigrants, but luxuriates in Zhenia’s words when he tells her she has the body of a 28-year-old.
We never know what Zhenia’s motivation is in any of this, whether he’s some sort of holy healer or a man with an ulterior motive. He says a couple of times that he comes from Pripyat, the town near Chernobyl. “Perhaps you’re radioactive?” asks the clerk giving out the work permits. Something like that, yes. In the conceit of Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert, who wrote and directed the film together, we won’t get much clarity there. I confess at a certain point I wanted something like clarity—maybe just a nudge, even—when it came to the issue of Zhenia’s purpose. It might be just a bit too easy for the film to set up its mystery and then write it all off as a magic trick that can’t be explained.
Still, an exceptionally watchable and handsome movie, memorably acted by all concerned. And though impeccable in style, Never Gonna Snow Again makes room for scenes and moments that stick out as curiosities, like the little kid who sings “Jingle Bells” in English as his feet dangle in too-large-Birkenstocks. Or the title itself—some kind of warning, or maybe just another surreal touch.
August 13, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.