“I didn’t construct the characters. They appeared in front of me,” the Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi confessed recently in an interview with Film Comment, referring to her most recent film On Body and Soul (2017). Enyedi’s debut feature, My Twentieth Century, premiered in Cannes and won the Caméra d’Or in 1989, but to many non-European viewers, her work had remained mostly a mystery until On Body and Soul, which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and an Oscar bid. It is the only nominated foreign film by a woman.
Deep down, under its wintry hues and prolonged silences, On Body and Soul is a fairytale — as unabashedly sentimental as Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), nominated for the Best Picture category. Both films have the underpinnings and the trappings of an art-house movie, but Enyedi’s is more complex and liberatingly shapeless: What first appears like a straightforward tale about workplace manners turns into a suspense story and then, finally, into a romance — with fantastical touches. Enyedi treats her story’s twists and sub-lots with a dose of dry humor, even a slight-of-hand. I suspect that some of her fluidity and ease comes from the quick writing process of just a few weeks — the feeling that she already knew the characters before she fleshed out the story. At the same time, just as in My Twentieth Century, there is exuberance to her storytelling. Her characters appear bigger than life.
In the film’s plot, a socially inept meat inspector, Mária (Alexandra Borbély), arrives at an abattoir. When the financial director, Endre (Géza Morcsányi), makes polite lunch talk, asked to guess why he eats pottage, she answers bluntly, “Perhaps because your arm is crippled, it’s easier to eat mash with one hand,” embarrassing him. Mária’s wintry persona — her expressionless face, constantly pursed lips, and inflectionless voice — hide her rudimentary fear of physicality. She externalizes her thoughts in the privacy of her home, where she reenacts her awkward conversations.
Enyedi film isn’t as much about loneliness as it is about our capacity to instinctively respond to another person’s vulnerability — a skill, as Enyedi hints, we may be increasingly at a risk of losing in a media-mediated age. A petty theft (a crime of passion, it turns out) committed at their workplace brings the two together as they discover that they share a strange quirk: They are dreaming the same dream, in which they are a buck and a doe that find and lose each other in a wintry landscape. “Why did you run away?” Endre asks the clinically shy Mária after one of their nights of separate sleep. Only in the dreams does he come to understand that all of Mária’s actions — in dreams and in waking life — are conditioned by crippling fear.
I have seen a few of films set in abattoirs, the most magical of them probably being Still Life (2016), by Maud Alpi, in which a dog has a mystical connection with the other animals in a slaughterhouse. But in Enyedi’s film, neither Mária nor Endre seems to feel a genuine connection with the animals being slaughtered — other than in their dreams, in which the “animal,” aka the inner, instinctual self makes itself manifest. Instead, the filmmaker focuses on the abattoir’s sociological dimension.
Many interactions are one of power struggles, between men and women, between old and young. When a powder used for mating cows goes missing from the lab, and a shrink evaluates workers as part of an investigation, Endre’s co-worker comments, “She really messed with my mind. I could bang her, though.” This crude background of pompous masculinity lends Mária and Endre’s romance a deeper resonance. On the surface, with a wisp of gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard, Endre cuts a more traditionally handsome figure than Mária. Yet the pang of pain in his eyes when she mentions his crippled arm makes it clear that he feels emasculated, and is conscious of being watched. Similarly, in a scene in which Mária sits at her computer, the abattoir workers peer at her from behind a plastic flap, as if she were a weird insect under a microscope. Endre and Mária aren’t blind or invulnerable to such social toxicity, with multitude petty resentments and mistrust. Yet their dreams help them assert their more idealist and empathetic side, and break out of their individual shells.
Nevertheless, there is a real tinge of sadness to On Body and Soul, which serves as a quaint allegory on dating in the age of Tinder: a hint that visiting mysterious strangers in our dreams (or fantasies or sex chat rooms) is at times as close we get to intimacy. In this sense we may wonder: Where’s the place for our body and soul?
On Body and Soul by Ildikó Enyedi is available to stream on Netflix.