Opening on a woodland as two deer search through the snow for food, it’s clear from the start On Body and Soul isn’t a conventional love story. Their eyes meet and the stag wanders over to the doe, laying his head on her neck, an act of warmth and compassion in an otherwise cold, hospitable territory. It’s a picturesque scene disconcertingly juxtaposed by another hostile environment; the killing floor of a Budapest slaughterhouse.
A romantic melodrama about the duality of our sleeping and waking personas, Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi is perhaps best known for winning the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1989 for her film My 20th Century, about two orphaned twins who find each other years after being separated. Her fifth feature is a wholly different kind of story: a darkly comic romance that speaks to a desire to return to a more natural state of existence. Endre (Morcsányi Géza) and Mária (Alexandra Borbély) meet at the slaughterhouse they work at. They make a strange couple, with both of them at different stages of their romantic lives.
Endre, played with warmth and empathy by Géza, is the slaughterhouse’s financial director, a man who’s given up on finding love; partly because of the stroke that left him paralysed down his left-side, but mainly because he’s already in his fifties and living alone. Mária’s life on the other hand has barely started. She’s the factory’s new quality inspector, but her OCD, “abnormally developed memory” and refusal to bend the rules have made her an isolated figure on the killing room floor. Borbély isn’t given much to work with as Mária shows little to no emotion, yet her eyes speak to the pain and suffering behind her stoic veneer, expressing a sense of dissatisfaction in which both fear and desire are breathed.
They speak for the first time in the canteen, a conversation Mária remembers word for word, and recreates later at home with a salt and pepper shaker Despite Endre’s obvious signs of attraction, the two don’t hit it off until a robbery of ‘mating powder’ leads to a psychiatrist being called in to give each staff member a psych-evaluation. She discovers the pair have been dreaming in chorus, about the aforementioned stag and doe. This set-up might sound ridiculous on paper, but there’s a rich vein of surreal humour that flows just below the surface of this peculiar premise, holding it all together. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that life and dreams are leaves of the same book: “reading them in order is living; skimming through them is dreaming”.
The pair attempts to get on the same page and each day, they find each other at work, desperate to convey and compare the vivid imagery of their dream lives. However, Mária’s inability to give herself over to Ender physically prevents the possibilities of a romantic relationship. This sequence of events ultimately makes up most of the film’s runtime and feels both infuriating and endless. Thankfully the final payoff is worth the wait, with Enyedi ramping up the gallows humour for the final act. There’s a measured, almost clinical precision to how On Body and Soul is shot that, while in keeping with Mária’s great fragility and terrible need for affection, prevents the film from really delivering.
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Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble