Director: Ildikó Enyedi
Stars: Géza Morcsányi, Alexandra Borbély, Zoltán Schneider
A winter forest. Snow bundles rest at the feet of tall, brittle trees. Naked branches jut. A cold stream trickles. Into this peaceful landscape step two deer; a buck and a doe. They stand close. It is serene.
It’s also a dream shared by two people working at an abattoir, the focal characters of this wonderful and devastating new film from Ildikó Enyedi, her first in many years. Géza Morcsányi is Endre; cresting middle age, emotionally withdrawn, burdened by an arm he cannot use. Alexandra Borbély is Maria; doe-like herself, ill at ease with human contact, bravely attempting to engineer conversation and communication with Endre despite her own psychological hang-ups and burdens. These are two deeply introverted individuals, connected by a shared feeling of distance from their co-workers and the dreams they have at night in which they are transformed and pure.
They are not aware of this subliminal connection at first (which Enyedi never tries to explain through exposition, it is left simply as a fantastic means of bonding the two of them; a visualisation of unspoken, perhaps even unconscious attraction). Following the theft of some medications from the workplace, the police suggest a psychoanalyst screen all employees, and it is she who brings their shared dreams to light. What follows is a strange, delightful and often heartbreaking glimpse at two individuals trying to work out how to connect with one another when they are so habitually entrenched in being alone.
If that all sounds like the fuel for a quirky indie dramedy in the mold of familiar American pictures, then think again. Enyedi’s film is more emotionally honest than that. It is sparser and bleakly deadpan in its approach. It is very, very funny, but the tone is more similar to that conjured by the likes of Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster). Though Enyedi has events play out often in stillness or quietude, there is always the danger of a cut to something troubling or the threat of unexpected rawness. The film therefore often feels still, yet is kept alive by the fire of the unpredictable. You sense Enyedi is perfectly willing to make you uncomfortable.
That sense is bedded in early with a bracing sequence which may convince those contemplating vegetarianism to go all in and give up meat for good. In establishing the abattoir, Enyedi has us understand the process in graphic detail. This isn’t repeated, but once is most surely enough, and On Body And Soul earns its bright red 18 certificate early on. The sight of a cow’s slaughter and decapitation is punishing enough to coarse the same feeling of risk through the rest of the picture (something Enyedi takes full advantage of during a breathless sequence in the final reel), but the abattoir setting isn’t arbitrary. Endre and Maria’s strange attraction might originate in the complex recesses of the soul, but the body is just as mysterious. Physicality is key. When we see them as deer we remember the cow. And when we see them as people we remember the deer. Through these resonating connections, Enyedi reminds us that people have blood in them. That we’re all so much unlikely biology as much as we are misfiring chemistry.
Working in proximity to such violence takes its toll, as Endre urges a burly newcomer near the beginning, and one might readily assume that this is part of the reason that Endre and Maria are so closed down. Though neither of them work closely on the slaughterhouse floor, steeling yourself against those horrors inevitably includes shutting down part of the soul. For whatever reason (and Enyedi infers a few), these two have started to unfurl toward each other inspite of themselves.
Endre struggles with this new emotional risk, trying to remain walled in as much as he can, while Maria explores it with newfound curiosity. These opposing approaches threaten to cause significant harm to both of them as it removes the sense of balance and equilibrium established in the first hour. If you’ve made it this far with them, the stakes feel unusually high for a romantic drama. If this all ends in failure, one feels, the consequences could be disastrous.
Both actors impress, but it is Borbély who becomes the spirit of the film as Maria. Her work here is especially joyful to watch, her face the source of a great number of subtle but keenly felt emotions. Her eyes dart like her dream self, always on high alert, yet she moves like a ghost, intentionally shying from attention. Saying little, it’s a physical performance guided by small decisions and deliberate choices, yet she evokes great empathy.
Werner Herzog was so impressed with the film that he and the panel of judges at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival bestowed it with the coveted Golden Bear. One might have hoped that such an honour would have granted On Body And Soul a wider cinematic release here in the UK, but unfortunately screenings are rather sparse. It’s a shame, because as chilly as it might appear, this is a film with a lot of heart, an original and inquisitive piece of cinema that isn’t afraid to stick the audience right where they don’t want to be. For the curious it is presently available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema. If you have the stomach for it, that’s something I’d recommend, as this is one of the year’s real diamonds in the rough.