Zhenia might be a superhero, or maybe a super-villain. He might have gained his powers through radiation, like Spiderman, but his point of contact was Pripyat (Chernobyl). His super-abilities are in his hands, but his intentions are not always clear. With ambiguous powers come ambiguous responsibilities in Malgorzata Szumowska’s Never Gonna Snow Again (“co-directed” by cinematographer-co-writer Michal Englert), which opens today in New York.
Sort of like Django dragging his coffin, Zhenia blew into town carrying his massage table over his shoulder. Thanks to his powers of mesmerism, the mysterious masseuse had no trouble with immigration. The next time we see him, Zhenia has built up a large client list in a gated community outside Warsaw. He seems to hold many of his clients in a seductive sway, especially the women (like a clean-cut version of Nick Nolte in Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Yet, he never takes advantage of them whenever puts them under via hypnotic suggestion. Instead, he might practice his ballet in their spacious McMansions.
NGSA is a strange film that generally feels like an art-house genre film, but it is tricky to define in what ways. Regardless, it is far and away Szumowska’s best film, head and shoulders superior to the dreary The Other Lamb or Elles. There are periodic expressionistic excursions into Zhenia’s subconscious that start to try viewer patience, but Szumowska actually makes them payoff with a haunting climax.
Alec Utgoff’s weird lead performance well suits the film. He is like a human Rorschach. He gives so little, yet somehow invites those around him to infer and project so much. Weronika Rosati is also quite extraordinary, in a tightly-wound, yet understated way, as Wika, the wife of Zhenia’s cancer-stricken performance.
NGSA, starting most obviously with the glaring class distinctions between the privileged clients and the stateless masseuse, living in brutalist housing complex overlooking an industrial district. There is also is pronounced prejudice against immigrants from “The East,” like Zhenia, as well as a conspicuous generational divide. Yet, perhaps most profoundly, the specter of Chernobyl (and the Soviet cover-up) hovers over the film, just out of sight.
There are stylistic excesses in NGSA, but if you stick with it, you can understand what Szumowska was going for. It is an ambitious film that can be challenging, but it really is impressive how well it comes together at the end. Recommended for sophisticated viewers, Never Gonna Snow Again opens today (7/30) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.