On Body and Soul | 2017 Berlin International Film Festival Review
That Obscure Object: Enyedi Mounts Moving, Lyrical Return with Inspired Portrait of Desire
For her first film in nearly twenty years, Hungarian auteur Ildiko Enyedi returns with a strangely hypnotic and unique love story, On Body and Soul. A bit meditative, even elegiac in its ponderings on intimacy, emotional vs. physical connections, and the sometimes insurmountable levels of social cues which often inhibit human abilities to authentically relate to one another, Enyedi strikes an exotic balance of effective charm and eventual alarm as a financial director and a new health inspector begin to share the same dreams and then eventual a romantic connection while working in the same slaughter house in Budapest. Despite a devious, macabre backdrop, this eventually blossoms into a disarming, even endearing portrait of two lonely souls brought together by strange circumstances.
When the usual quality controller at a slaughterhouse in Budapest enters maternity leave, she’s replaced by Maria (Alexandra Borbely), an intensely serious young woman who follows strict guidelines. Cold and robotic in her social interactions, many find her unnerving and off putting, but Endre (Geza Morcsanyi), the company’s financial advisor, can see her behavior is born out of acute shyness. Sporting his own physical disability, he attempts to communicate with her, but is quickly rebuffed. When an incident at work requires all the employees to undergo psychological evaluations, they discover they have both been experiencing the same dreams.
Enyedi establishes a few set binaries to assist in layering characterizations for two people we never end up learning too much about. Endre’s withered arm and Maria’s stunted emotional intelligence suggests each category heralded by the title, and the notion of sex as either an act of meaningless pleasure vs. an intimate, fulfilling connection is brought up over and over again. The slaughterhouse also assists local breeders, off the books, as we discover when mating hormones are stolen and accidentally end up ruining a reunion (which happens off screen) when several people ingest it. While the irony of this collateral function of Ender’s business is noted, it also sets up one of many examples defining male mating rituals among humans, like the possible cuckold Jeno (Zoltan Schneider) and the flirtatious new cad on staff, Sandor (Ervin Nagy).
Women, meanwhile, are allowed a range of limited agency as long as their behavior aligns with appropriate feminine behavior and they are traditionally attractive, such as Jeno’s wife (Eva Bata) or a no-nonsense psychologist (Reka Tenki) hired to provide mental health tests to the staff. Maria, on the other hand, behaves as if she’s somewhere on the autistic spectrum, although she appears to be an otherwise beautiful woman, which tends to be alarming to those who are expecting her to act according to how she looks. A telling moment with a cleaning lady (who crassly informs her co-workers about the kind of sex she experiences in her dreams) ends with her advising Maria to wear more form fitting clothes if she’s looking to get a man.
Of course, all of this is strangely aggravated by these shared dream sequences of deer in the wood, mammals also hunted by man, but allowed to live freely, unlike the shackled bovine creatures who are ripped apart with the help of heavy machinery. Dream states and waking realities allows for some evocative imagery from DP Mate Herbai, while Enyedi foregoes a more intrusive score, instead utilizing a melancholy pop tune to masterful effect (again collapsing the space between sex and death). Geza Morcsanyi (making his screen debut) and Alexandra Borbely manage surprising chemistry in this curious, observational study on dream lovers who now don’t have to dream alone.
Reviewed on February 10 at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival – Competition. 116 Mins.