All that glitters is not gold, but there is positivity to be found in radioactivity. Co-directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert, the haunting supernatural forces at work in Never Gonna Snow Again are elusive, inexplicable and yet perfectly in sync with reality.
They enter and alter the world in which they exist via the hands of Ukrainian immigrant and masseur, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff). Spending his days servicing the rich clientele of an affluent Polish suburb, he listens to and observes the trivialities of their upper-class lives, absorbing their woes and vices through extra-sensory fingertips. Defying pre-conceptions of health, wealth and happiness as well as stereotypes of people and place, this superb black comedy-cum-mystery is deftly crafted by a filmmaking duo on very top form.
Having previously collaborated on a number of projects in the capacity of writer (Englert) and director (Szumowska), they team up in jointly penning and helming Never Gonna Snow Again to create a piercing, and at times outrageously funny, satire on the showy emptiness of modern capitalist society. This is counterbalanced with an underplayed, profoundly affecting tale of one boy’s longing for his mother and the lasting shockwaves of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Utgoff is hypnotic in the lead role. Dressed in a black vest, trousers and white socks while putting his magical hands to work, he both resembles and has the grace of a dancer in the muscled poise that he brings to his performance.
With an impressive physical sure-footedness, the use of frequent close-ups and a breaking of the fourth wall allow us to see past the stern exterior to the sadness of the lost soul that wanders below. Retreating from the grand, expensively decorated homes of his clients, Zhenia’s own modest apartment is sparse and dilapidated. One photo hangs on a wall – a distant, fading image of his mother, seen from behind. This is an image that he struggles to let go and a face that he fights to recall. Reframing the prejudicial treatment that inhabitants of Pripyat would have received, shunned for being contagious, Never Gonna Snow Again instead presents its leading man as a superhero.
The ill effects of being born seven years to the day before the disaster are turned into powers to heal, alleviate pain, stress. But there was one person whom he was unable to save. And therein lies the rub for Zhenia who instead puts his talents to good use in the everyday. An endless procession of cookie cutter homes with ever-increasingly pretentious doorbell rings, and housewives who lust after the handsome young man, Zhenia remains diffident, polite and – for the most part – detached from their affairs, drugs, drinking and neighbourly one-upmanship.
With the ability to slow down time (literally), make these people stop, think and change, is he able to fill the void in his own life? Returning to the woods from whence he came in the film’s evocative opening moments, the visions each person has under Zhenia’s hypnotic spell humble them, provide a life-affirming clarity which far outweighs an hour’s rub down. And as they stand in silence, contemplating the falling snow – or is it a heavy dust? – they come to realise that this phantom-like stranger has changed their lives forever and will never be forgotten.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63