by Ken Bakely
Early on in Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul, we’re taken through a slaughterhouse and shown the dismemberment of a cow, all according to a strict process. The head is removed, and great rivers of blood pour onto the drain-covered floor. Vise-like machines separate the limbs, as bones crunch and snap under the metal grips. It’s sufficiently gruesome to feel like a video released to promote vegetarianism, but what’s accomplished here is not as literal as it is directional. As one of the first things we see, it’s a confirmation of the body as complicated and messy, yet still a container for something else, or something which can be perceived by others.
Two of the slaughterhouse’s employees are a middle-aged man named Endre (Géza Morcsányi) and a young woman named Maria (Alexandra Borbély). During workplace-wide psychological evaluations, when everyone takes a questionnaire that involves discussing their recent dreams, it’s discovered that both have been having the same one. They’re deer in a snow-covered forest, interacting by a river. During the day, oth lead lives marked by loneliness, in a search for fulfillment. They can’t find it in each other at first, but there’s an immediate connection here that goes beyond the simple bounds of physical, real time bonding. On Body and Soul is a chronicle of their lives, empty in peculiar ways, with accumulating situations that reach high levels of absurdity, bordering on the darkly comic. It’s a generously strange love story, with its central pairing forced outside the windows of corporeal appearance and into the hazy, impenetrable, and lucrative creations of the unconscious mind.
Enyedi takes her time in establishing a mood, through heavy use of distant shots and soft lighting. Scenes drag on for so long, they become uncomfortable. Jokes hang in the air until they’re barely jokes anymore. This is all intentional, as On Body and Soul is a perceptive portrait of its protagonists’ unfulfilled emotional lives. Endre and Maria’s senses are dulled to the outside; at first it’s the occasional incredulous shock that jolts them into life, juxtaposing their glazed eyes and moody shuffles. But by the third act, it’s a surreal cavalcade of amassing events, with a final half-hour that brings more opportunities for nervous laughter, followed by something truly haunting. The environment is wholly specific, and the road there is filled with original bursts of feeling and intricate romantic inversions.
Yet there’s such deliberation to the proceedings that it becomes troublesome in the first act, as Enyedi keeps her cards up her sleeve and deals them with a hand that is almost too sparing. Between Endre and Maria’s introduction, and when they get into the groove of their dream-based courtship, the film moves with an uncharacteristic executional restraint. On Body and Soul plunges into the mundanity of everyday life before softly tinkering around, waiting for things to happen to it, instead of bringing the eccentric energy it later shows off in droves. It’s the madcap individuality of the back half that makes us realize how much space was wasted when revving things up at the start.
But Enyedi is doing something here that moves beyond the flaws in her planning. Her movie operates in a fantastic liminal space regardless, augmented by two committed lead performances, making effective use of striking recurring elements: from the fluctuating circumstances of the dream, to the subsequently amorphous quality of the central relationship. More than just a story of love in the time of disconnect, On Body and Soul is an arresting pastiche of abstract tone and theatricality, as the boundaries between external and internal worlds blur with a misty but thorough aplomb. It’s as if the whole film takes place by that wintery river, caught in an interdimensional dream, as we watch the two deer come down from their separate planes, move through the snow, and grow closer.