“Never Gonna Snow Again” marks the first time that Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert have been co-credited as directors, but it was a formality for the two who have worked together for the past two decades, perhaps thinking before that announcing themselves as a duo would take away from the fact that their work together has been truly singular. With a creative partnership that has long outlasted their marriage right out of film school, the two have gradually taken the world by storm with their distinctive work, telling provocative stories of communities fraught with tension and individuals striving for something just beyond their reach as they have found their way into prostitution rings (“Elles”) and cults (“The Other Lamb”) where fantasies are often buffered in both directions by a darker reality. Their latest, set in gated community in Warsaw, is no less bewitching, though it may tonally be their lightest film to date as it centers off Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a mysterious masseuse whose ability to heal with his hands may seem supernatural to his clients, yet Szumowska and Englert suggest it really is when he’s a child of Chernobyl and seven at the time of the nuclear disaster.
While Zhenia may have inadvertently inherited some super powers, he remains all too human in “Never Gonna Snow Again,” constantly reminded he’s an outsider speaking Pripyat in the well-to-do Polish neighborhood, though in spite of the track housing that all looks the same, everyone appears to be feeling that way, from the harried housewife (Maja Ostazewska) who is always in need of a back rub when struggling to keep up with her rambunctious children to a cancer patient (Lukas Simlat) who seeks relaxation in his final days as his wife (Weronika Rosati) can only feel helpless as she watches on. Zhenia brings comfort to himself by doing so for others, and it’s only natural that Szumowska and Englert cast the same transfixing spell over an audience that their lead is able to over those on his massage table, supplying strikingly surreal imagery to illustrate these lost souls’ search for meaning — and occasionally finding it in the most peculiar of places — as they escape corporeal form and allow their minds to drift off.
Although Szumowska and Englert are no strangers to satire with black comedies such as “Mug” and “Body,” “Never Gonna Snow Again” is particularly intriguing in how gentle it is, observing how a community can be lulled into a trance of routine and it ironically takes hypnosis to snap out of it. With a jack-of-all-trades in Utgoff starring as Zhenia, who comes to put on a show beyond his abilities as a masseuse, the film is a product of a vision that aims to be just as disruptive and fresh for audiences that may have become inured to all of cinema’s possibilities when so many films feel familiar and with the film now arriving in theaters after becoming a sensation at last year’s Venice Film Festival and eventually selected as Poland’s official Oscar submission, the longtime collaborators spoke about the inspiration behind the subversive comedy, sneakily securing their central location and staying attuned to their unique style when it’s out of sync with the mainstream.
Is it true this all started out with a real masseuse?
Michal Englert: We have a friend who is real masseuse, and one day we thought it could be a great starting point to make the person like him. Of course, our Zhenia from the movie is quite different person, but we thought this is something, to make this kind of person the main character in the movie.
All your films have been different, but many keep coming back to this theme of people who are looking for something they can’t have. What keeps you interested?
Malgorzata Szumowska: It’s more about people who probably look like they have everything, but actually they are lacking something, let’s say maybe spiritual, which is more connected to another dimension, and because of what they have, it gives them literally a kind of an emptiness, so they are missing something, but what exactly it is, it’s hard to say. In this, it’s something spiritual, this void in them.
Did the idea lead you immediately to this idea of a gated community?
Michal Englert: You always pick up the topics and you need to base it somewhere on your movie map to tell us something more about the world, so this time we thought that this gated community, which really exists on suburbs in Warsaw. [We thought] it would be a fantastic idea to have this very solid complex of the characters living next to each other, so it connects and this community can be a symbol of the world these days.
Malgorzata Szumowska: And it wasn’t easy to get access to get permission to film there, because they are really people living there. We used some of the houses, which were under construction and we convinced some of the owners to let us in.
Michal Englert: But honestly, we had to use some tricks. One of them was that at the very early stage, Malgo, with our German co-producer, was pretending they were potential buyers and it was really funny because the guy was presenting this space, chatting about some values [of living] around there — about the landscape’s special view [for instance], but everything, mostly, looked the same, so [this was] a funny story at the beginning [in relation to the film we wanted to make]. But, of course at the end, we told them we are filmmakers and very interested to bring the film crew there.
When the houses say so much about the characters, do you actually involve the actors in that process at all of figuring out what the set design might look like?
Malgorzata Szumowska: Yes, a bit. At the beginning, we present the houses to the actors and [ask] how they feel inside in terms of furniture, et cetera. But we didn’t have a lot of choices because those people who live there, in general, have literally almost the same houses, so the idea was to show how much it’s like a “Truman Show.” There’s no difference in between the interiors, but someone likes gold and someone likes white, and someone [likes a] more minimalistic style, so of course we discussed the interiors with the cast.
Once you got Alec Utgoff on board, I understand you started adapting the character to him, which is how the dance came into the film. What was it like figuring out the character with him?
Malgorzata Szumowska: Alec is amazing and pretty fast, we discovered that he can do many things. He can play piano, he can dance, he can even draw, so we said, why not to use it? That he’s a guy who is so gifted, he’s almost a mystical character, and we asked him actually from one day to another, “Oh, maybe he’s going to be also dancing, oh maybe he’s going to be singing” and he was so afraid of what were we going to come up each day that he’d have to learn. But he learned the dancing scene [towards the end of the film] within one week, and he learned to play the piece on the piano because he’s the kind of person who it’s easy to do that. But he was surprised by our new ideas from one day to another.
From what I’ve heard about your shoots, you break them up in such a way that you can reflect on what you’ve already shot at certain points, so once the film starts taking on a life of its own, were there directions this took that you could get excited about?
Malgorzata Szumowska: We are always trying to work like this. Our way of working we admire the most is just to be surprised by many of the events and to have the characters and the frame of the scenes, but to have the flexibility to change something here and there and follow the story, so we are always leaving a week for additional shooting, and first we are editing and then we see, “oh here and there, maybe we need something” and we are using this additional week of shooting [to explore] some new, surprising ideas, which editing brings us. It’s a very good method, especially when you are making this kind of film, which is not typical storytelling. This is a very enigmatic film in a good way.
I agree and something that I’ve been really excited by in your last few films is this idea that they’ve been growing more meditative or moving into a transcendent space that lets the audience in more to bring in their own ideas as they’re watching it. Has that actually been a conscious evolution on your part?
Michal Englert: It’s quite tempting to get into the kind of a trance when you’re watching the movie because these days you can see a lot of movies that look quite similar in their structure, so with each new one, we try to look for something which is also new for us. We’re looking for something which is maybe not very much describable, but as a viewer, we also like while watching some pieces in theater or in a movie or in some exhibitions, to be moved and touched by something and you don’t exactly know why is it like that, but it’s working, so this is something we pay tribute to.
If I’m not spoiling the magic too much, I wanted to ask, my very favorite thing in the film is that scene where you move through the painting to Zhenia’s memory of his childhood. What was it like stain that shot?
Michal Englert: We quite carefully we paid attention to these transitions in the movie. When we go to the world of the Zhenia’s memories about his mother and his childhood, which were always a tribute to our own memories as a people in the mid-forties, because we quite well remember Chernobyl, and this era which was full of mystery. Of course, it was connected with the old days and old systems when we were under the communism, but we wanted to keep the child’s perspective with seeing this and to depict this in the movie [with] this magical curiosity, so this is [how we came to] the transition through the frame of the painting on the wall. But we picked all of these elements quite carefully — how to put these [transitions] in exact moments when it’s connected to the emotions of the main character.