Film of the week: On Body and Soul finds love in a bloody place

Two lonely souls, a painfully shy doctor and a disappointed older man, share a pastoral dream world and a gory workplace in Ildikó Enyedi’s witty, sensitive romance.

Philip Kemp
Updated:

Lives lived in parallel evidently intrigue the Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi. In her debut feature, My Twentieth Century (1989), twin sisters born in Budapest on the day that Thomas Edison first displays electric light are separated in childhood; one grows up to be a cunning vamp, the other a high-minded revolutionary, but their lives cross and mirror each other in paradoxical ways. Enyedi’s follow-up, Magic Hunter (1994), crosscuts stories set in present-day Hungary and medieval times. And in her most recent film, On Body and Soul, which was awarded the Golden Bear in Berlin, two people who lead similarly solitary, alienated lives discover that they’ve been sharing each other’s dreams.

The film opens, though, with neither of these two – or then again, perhaps with both. In a snow-covered wood, a stag and a doe wander together searching for food, occasionally nuzzling each other gently. Scenes of these two animals, intimately and appealingly shot, recur throughout the action, in startling counterpoint to the brutally blood-drenched, shit-stained killing process we see in the abattoir; only after some time do we discover (though we might already have guessed) that they’re the spiritual personae, the avatars even, of Endre and Mária in their shared dreams.

It’s the discovery of this nocturnal sharing, via the sceptical psychiatrist, that brings them together – a turning point in the plot that, in the wrong hands, could have felt intolerably cutesy. Enyedi, though, handles this along with the other stages in their hesitant, tentatively developing relationship with quiet subtlety, often depicting her solitary pair in their respective apartments with through-window night shots that recall the paintings of Edward Hopper.

On Body and Soul (2017)

The gradual coming together of two individuals paralysed by shyness and inhibitions also links back to an earlier Enyedi film, Tamas and Juli (1997) – itself channelling ‘lonely folks’ social comedies such as Delbert Mann’s classic Paddy Chayefsky-scripted Marty (1954). The odd couple of the present film – Enyedi’s first feature for 18 years – are Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the finance director of a large industrialised slaughterhouse, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), a young woman newly appointed as its quality inspector.

Endre, a middle-aged man whose left arm is withered – we never learn the origin of this disability – lives alone, eating solitary dinners in cafés or in his apartment. His only friend, with whom he usually shares lunch in the works canteen, seems to be Jenö (Zoltán Schneider), the tubby and heavily married HR manager.

Mária, a delicate blonde in her late twenties, apparently has no friends at all: painfully withdrawn to the point of autism, she lacks all social skills, rejects friendly overtures and hates being touched. Along with all this, she possesses total recall. Asked by a psychiatrist when she first menstruated, she responds unhesitatingly: “November 5th 1998.”

Géza Morcsányi and Alexandra Borbély

Géza Morcsányi and Alexandra Borbély

The director’s sympathy for her characters doesn’t preclude sly humour, often expressed through a meaningful use of close-ups – as when we’re shown Mária’s geometrically arranged dinner plate, an exact half-circle of rice confronting four symmetrically fanned-out fish fingers. Much of the humour involves the deftly characterised supporting cast, not least Réka Tenki as the psychiatrist Klára, her in-your-face attitude – along with her full scarlet lips and voluptuous breasts (which she catches Endre staring at) – providing a striking contrast to the pale, reticent Mária. Pál Macsái makes a quirkily sardonic cop, grinning at the thought of some purloined cattle-mating powder causing guests at a 50th class reunion to “jump at each other like crazed animals”, and there’s a robustly profane turn from Itala Békés as an outspoken elderly cleaning lady.

The film is carried, though, by its two leads. Morcsányi – remarkably enough, here making his screen acting debut in his mid-sixties – brings a rueful melancholia to his portrayal of Endre, his long bearded face suggesting a lifetime of stoic disillusionment. But it’s Borbély’s Mária who traces the longest story arc, as she teaches herself social skills such as emoting and touching: we see her taking a stuffed black panther to bed with her, stroking a cow at the abattoir (much to the amusement of the other employees), pressing her hand down on a plate of mashed potato, watching porno movies and acting out conversations with the help of Lego characters.

Perhaps the film’s most ecstatic moment comes when, having wandered through a park gazing intrusively at the entwined couples lying on the grass, she lies down herself – and then the sprinklers come on. Her look of wondering delight as she’s suddenly showered encapsulates the film’s lyrical, elliptical charm.

 

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