How much healing can a good massage provide? A fast-fading hour or so of relaxation, or a more sustained sense of general well-being and peace with the world, so long as it’s topped up with repeat appointments? In “Never Gonna Snow Again,” a searching, cryptic satire of bourgeois insularity in modern Poland, the magic hands of an immigrant Ukrainian masseur are tasked with easing a litany of woes, from middle-class guilt to climate change anxiety to terminal cancer — though no one thinks to ask him about his own interior aches and pains. After last year’s moody but mildly received English-language diversion “The Other Lamb,” prolific Polish auteur Malgorzata Szumowska returns to home turf in this Venice competition entry, and the result is her most compelling and hauntingly realized film to date.
With a run of variously provocative, distinctively styled films through the 2010s — including the Juliette Binoche starrer “Elles” and the Berlinale prizewinners “In the Name Of,” “Body” and “Mug” — erstwhile documentarian Szumowska has become a festival-circuit fixture, though commercially, a major arthouse breakthrough has thus far eluded her.
Perhaps that could come with “Never Gonna Snow Again,” which may be immersed in particular strains and stresses of urban Polish society, but should resonate universally with its evocation of haves-and-have-nots tension, supported by droll comedy and lavishly atmospheric intrigue. Now sharing directorial credit with her longtime DP and co-writer Michal Englert, Szumowska seems ready to be ushered into the Polish auteur pantheon: Following recent entries by Pawel Pawlikowski, Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Wajda, “Never Gonna Snow Again” has been selected as the country’s official Oscar submission this year.
Szumowska and Englert make an immediate play for our attention with a bravura opening sequence, shot in heady, misty grays and saturated “Vertigo” greens, that sets the film’s tricky tonal balance between grim realism and faintly spooky absurdity. Beginning his trek in an eerily illuminated forest, a physically imposing young man, Zhenia, crosses the border from Ukraine into Poland, navigating a trail of abandoned bridges and underpasses, and carrying a folding massage table under his arm. Arriving at the Warsaw immigration office, he informs a dusty official that he intends to live in Poland, before taking the man’s head in his huge, soft hands, and massaging him into a trance. As played with serene, affectless authority by Ukrainian-British actor Alec Utgoff (“Stranger Things”), Zhenia seems a man who makes more polite demands than requests: Sure enough, with the official out for the count, he stamps his own residence permit, and departs.
It’s an opening gambit that raises a surfeit of questions about this strange interloper, not all of which will be neatly answered in the ambiguous sequence of events that ensues. The next time we see him, accompanied by the lush, waltzing strains of Shostakovich, he’s entering a gated residential estate on the suburban outskirts of Warshaw, evenly dotted with meringue-white McMansions that look — through the elegant, alien gaze of Englert’s camera —like Goop-branded Lego sets. It’s unclear how much time has passed since his entry into the country, but he’s clearly built up a devoted clientele within the estate’s unwelcoming walls: We follow him through a day of massage appointments with its moneyed, unhappy inhabitants, whose various domestic squabbles and eccentricities he observes with impassive patience.
Wine-swilling housewife Maria (Maja Ostaszewska) finds a calm in Zhenia that her hostile children and distant husband do not provide. Caustic, drug-taking widow Ewa (Agata Kulesza, of “Ida” renown) sneers at the masseur’s perceived unworldliness, but seems more dependent on his company than she dares admit, while a cancer-stricken family man (Lukasz Simlat) and his wife (Weronika Rosati) have invested their last hopes for his survival in Zhenia’s much-in-demand fingertips. Szumowska and Englert’s vignette-based script risks caricature in these directionless elites, but there’s an essential ring of truth in the way they simultaneously treat Zhenia with fawning, quasi-erotic need and microaggressive disdain — complaining in his presence about immigrants before adding a hasty “but you’re different” caveat or, in the film’s broadest comic lurch, instructing him to massage their gassy, slobbering pet dogs.
Quite what Zhenia makes of his clients has to be read between the long, limber lines of Utgoff’s physically commanding performance. He holds more power over them than they seem to realize, able to snap them in and out of unconscious dream states with a soft click of his fingers — and occasionally using that freedom to explore their vast houses, or practice silent ballet routines on the heated floors.
At first that power seems to be a threat, positioning Zhenia as some potential angel of death, though it’s equally likely that the film is exploiting the default prejudices of its audience against foreign outsiders. Like the residents — who identify themselves with Western Europe at every turn, down to the twee French school attended by their children — we risk othering and exoticizing this quiet arrival from the East. Yet as is made clear by our sporadic glimpses of the inner-city high-rise that Zhenia inhabits after hours, or in his wry interactions with the estate’s Ukrainian gatekeeper, he and his clients share a country, not a world.
“Never Gonna Snow Again” is so rich in sociopolitical allusions and delicate, shivery modulations of mood that not all of its script’s manifold ideas have full room to bloom. Glimmering, golden-lit flashbacks to what Zhenia alleges was his childhood in Chernobyl keep threatening to crack his character while keeping his secrets just beyond reach; a running device that visualizes the characters’ various states of hypnosis in same Grimm Brothers-style forest yields more striking imagery than psychological payoff.
Yet for all its dangling notes, the film reaches a genuinely symphonic conclusion, shedding any excess rancor in its satire to unite a community in fears over death, disconnection and, per its title, a winter that seems to get warmer every year. The enigmatic stranger at its center may be a healer or sorts, but he’s no messiah: It’ll take more than a tender touch to save any of them.