Two deer meet in a tranquil, snow-capped forest. They nuzzle each other, drink from the same babbling creek, run wild and free through the trees in something approaching a living Norman Rockwell painting. This is the shared dream of Endre (Géza Morcsányi) and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), two shy, introverted employees of a slaughterhouse in On Body and Soul, Hungary’s entry in 2018’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. The two barely know each other, but are ‘broken’ in ways that draw them together: Endre is mild-mannered and suffers from a permanently injured hand, while Mária is a new employee whose painful shyness and obsessive-compulsive behavior makes her an object of ridicule around the office. In their dreams, they meet as two beautiful deer; in the real world, they just can’t seem to connect.
It’s been eighteen years since writer/director Ildikó Enyedi released her last feature film, Simon the Magician, in 1999, making On Body and Soul a welcome comeback. Much like Simon, On Body and Soul is a film about the difficulty of making connections in a cruel, industrialized modern world, but the latter takes a far more opaque, cerebral approach. Characters speak and behave in ways you might find in the works of Ruben Östlund and Yorgos Lanthimos, all flat affect and averted stares. Endre and Mária are certainly outsiders in the abbatoir office setting – coworkers mock them to their faces, or gossip about one to the other – but everyone else’s performances are similarly restrained. Cinematographer Máté Herbai’s muted, crisp cinematography further conveys the abject alienation these dream lovers share in the real world, their fantastical shared lives never quite granting them the same grace when they’re standing in front of each other.
The film’s abbatoir setting is put to great, if visceral, use: at one point, the film merely stops to take an unblinking look at the comprehensive slaughtering of a cow, complete with beheadings, flaying, and dismemberment, all handled with surgical precision by whirring machines. It’s a scene not for the faint of heart, but one which makes more sense by the film’s closing act, exploring the ‘body’ half of the film’s title and its corresponding fragility. Their souls, of course, find their own manifestations in the deer they dream themselves into, a revelation that spurs a slow-burning infatuation, tests of their own human failings and the fact that, until now, they’d been mere acquaintances.
Morcsányi and Borbély give fantastic, layered performances, even when straining against material that often hints rather than explicates. Borbély is a particular standout, looking and behaving like an especially closed-off Luna Lovegood as she stumbles from one awkward social interaction to another, trying her best to understand these new feelings she must now process. Morcsányi is the more even-tempered of the two, but his small efforts to bring Mária out of her shell are some of the few moments of their dark romance that work most effectively.
Despite Enyedi’s intriguingly poetic approach, On Body and Soul starts to lose some steam over its two-hour runtime. By the film’s second hour, Enyedi seems to lose interest in the shared-dream concept, making it little more than an occasional catalyst for these two people to think they’re meant to be, despite the difficulties of pulling it off in reality. Instead, we get bogged down in subplots related to the other people in the office – the theft of some drugs from the abbatoir’s medicine cabinet is just the means by which a company shrink (Réka Tenki) discovers that Endre and Mária have the same dreams, making the reams of screentime spent on it a waste. The film’s third act, meanwhile, abandons much of the nuance that makes the first half work, turning Mária into more of a dream girl stereotype as she spends all day listening to CDs in a record store to learn how hew-mons process love, and makes some rash decisions driven by pathology rather than theme. There’s a heightened poetry to the proceedings, but it never quite connects to the metaphysical questions raised by their shared dreams, which is a shame.
While these are major hurdles to the film holding together as a consistent exploration of its subjects, On Body and Soul is still an intriguing, cerebral comeback for Enyedi. The idea of miserable, lonely people trying to force themselves into a seemingly fated relationship is rife with possibilities, but the film only explores them to a point. Beyond all the abstraction and esoterica of Enyedi’s approach, there’s a poignant thematic core ready to be explored in depth; perhaps her next film will bridge that gap between concept and execution.