Never Gonna Snow Again

Maria on the massage table

Remember the days when you’d never get a popular film star to work on a TV series? The reverse happened when co-directors Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert were casting Never Gonna Snow Again. They wanted Alec Utgoff, of American TV series Stranger Things fame, to take pole position in their film but would they be able to persuade him to take a step down?

They did and, beyond the profile he brings, you can see why they wanted him. The story is about a masseur from Ukraine who has a number of clients in a rich gated community in Poland. He massages, they open up to him. That’s it. Except for the fact that Zenia (Utgoff) might possess genuine magical powers rather than the more usual “healing hands”. In an opening sequence easily missed because it’s so low key, he obtains an exit visa in his home country by apparently hypnotising the official handing them out, after having answered, when asked what languages he speaks, “all of them”.

But, as I say, we more or less forget that odd, semi-magical opening because what follows is mundane to the point of desperation. In Poland, where he lives in a grim tower block, Zenia makes a living visiting wealthy clients. He puts up his table. The client climbs on. Zenia does his thing. The client then passes the folded money payment to Zenia in a semi-embarrassed rush – the illusion of something other than a financial transaction having been shattered – and Zenia moves on to the next client.

There’s the drunken slattern Maria (Maja Ostaszewska); the man dying of cancer (Lukasz Simlat) who doesn’t have a name but whose hot wife, Wika (Weronika Rosati), does; the woman who loves her bulldogs so much Zenia ends up massaging one of them; a retired ramrod soldier; and on they go. Some of them fall in love with Zenia, some confide, others fall fast asleep.

Alec, Wika and Wika's husband
Wika’s husband doesn’t stand a chance



Utgoff fits this role well for three reasons: he’s Ukraine-born; he’s physically strong and flexible, with a physique like a dancer’s; and he’s able to pull off a performance of enigmatic… what is it? Amusement? Bemusement? Probably a bit of both.

He has plenty to be amused and bemused about, and that’s what Szumowska and Engler’s film is interested in, the detached lives of the people who all live in similar houses – big grand white suburban palaces – behind the sentry post that keeps the riff-raff out of the gated community.

They’re miserable. Their lives are atomised. They have swapped human warmth and idiosyncratic contact for weird passions and obsessions. Security guards on Segways patrol the streets but otherwise there’s barely a soul abroad, apart from people walking dogs, all of whom say the same thing to Zenia when he encouters them – “Don’t be scared, that’s just how he says hello”.

Szumowska’s last film (Englert was DP) was 2019’s The Other Lamb. Never Gonna Snow Again (Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie in the original Polish) continues its move away from a dramatic style of film-making into something more thoughtful.

There’s a touch of Robert Altman’s jigsaw style – the parts start to add up to something – and nods to the poetics of Tarkovsky, whose Stalker also featured an enigmatic incomer of guru-like aspect, a film both directors have name-checked in interviews.

Szumowska and Englert were born when Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain and are clearly uneasy about the trade-offs their fellow Poles have made with the vast increase in wealth, especially the ones who have retreated into privatised spaces. Uneasy but not scornful. This isn’t withering social satire in the way Lindsay Anderson once might have done it, it’s more gentle, like a massage, in fact, and at certain points in the film – the flat shooting style, the muted lighting, these featureless bland houses – an ASMR mood almost starts to take over.

This spaced-out lightheadedness makes it easier for the co-director/writers to fold reality into memory, myth, folk wisdom, urban legend and the supernatural.

We’re back with Zenia’s magical powers again, so barely hinted at that it’s easy to forget they were ever in the mix. But they are, and they give Szumowska and Englert a brilliant way of bringing to a conclusion a story which, without the supernatural element, feels like it just might have run on for ever.



© Steve Morrissey 2021


The Other Lamb

Shepherd with his flock of women

 

Omens and portents abound in The Other Lamb, action not so much. Following the story of Selah (Raffey Cassidy), it’s set in a cult headed by a man known as the Shepherd, otherwise populated exclusively by women, who are designated either as Wives or Daughters. For easy identification and to reduce individuality even more, the Wives dress in purple, the Daughters in Blue.

They live in the modern world but away from it, out in the woods where they slaughter their own animals – sheep, appropriately – and butcher the meat themselves. They seem content, happy even, though little jealousies flare now and again when Shepherd chooses to lay with one wife rather than another.

Why no other men? “There can be only one ram in the flock,” says Sarah (Denise Gough), a once-favoured wife who is now scorned, is “a broken thing”, as Shepherd terms her, and is kept apart from the other women lest she spread dissent.

Which is exactly what she does, most obviously to Selah, who starts the film in rapt adoration of Shepherd, trembling at the thought that he might one day lay with her and turn her from Daughter to Wife. But, via a series of eye-opening shocks, Selah comes to realise that the cost of contentment is too high.

It turns out that Selah’s mother was also one of Shepherd’s wives, which probably means that he is her father, though this is never spelled out – very little in this film is spelled out. We’re thrown in and have to work it out for ourselves.

What does seem obvious is that the system they live under is Old Testament, with Shepherd as a prophet who keeps his followers in line with religious ceremony – the blood of a slaughtered lamb daubed chrism-style on receptive heads finding an echo in Shepherd’s biblical distaste for “impure” menstrual blood.

Heavy patriarchy held in place by a totalising belief system – The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re thinking. Well I was. This claustrophobically atmospheric drama is on familiar ground. The clothes even look similar.

The portents build, the omens multiply – DP Michal Englert has a great eye for an ominous tree, knows how to make even sheep look scary, shoots the barren moorland as if it might bite (the Irish locations are fabulous) and at one point pulls off the most spectacular dolly zoom on Selah, to indicate that, you know, she’s becoming disocciated from her milieu.

 

Raffey Cassidy as Selah
Selah: a baptism of fire

Given how much effort has gone into the build-up, it seems almost perverse that the inevitable showdown – generational, political, genderal, theological – should happen off-screen, but that’s how writer CS McMullen and director Malgorzata Szumowska have decided to play it.

I could imagine Bradley Cooper in the Shepherd role, which Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman fills well – his soft voice suggesting the pent-up rage of a psychopath – even if the figure of the charismatic male cult leader is also very familiar (John Hawkes in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene springs to mind).

Raffey Cassidy squeezes plenty of juice out of Selah, her eyes doing most of the work as Selah progresses from girl to woman and caged animal to wild beast. Aged 17/18, Cassidy is already a veteran. Surely great things beckon.

I enjoyed the film’s atmospherics, even if it’s hardly scoping new cultural territory – the cast work their butts off, the cinematography is magnificent, the scenery remarkable. But I was constantly expecting Elisabeth Moss’s June/Offred to make an appearance. That surely wasn’t the intention.

 

The Other Lamb – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020