On Body and Soul

 

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A longer review than usual for a film that may divide opinion but contains brilliance.

    
On Body and Soul

 

When watching this extraordinary film you are aware at once that it is the work of somebody with complete mastery of cinema. That person is the Hungarian writer/director Ildikó Enyedi and her achievement here is all the more remarkable since, although she has been busy in television, this is her first full feature cinema film since 1999. On Body and Soul reaches us having already this year won the Golden Bear as the Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival and the first half hour or so suggests that it could indeed be a masterpiece.

 

The main setting for the film is a slaughterhouse where Endre (Géza Morcsányi) is the financial director. He is drawn to a new employee taken on as a temporary replacement for their quality controller: this is Mária played by Alexandra Borbély. But in contrast the very first scene of all shows a deer and a doe in a wintry forest. With striking photography by Máté Herbai in colour and 'Scope, the film immediately brings us close to these creatures suggesting without the slightest sense of sentimentality the rapport between them. Indeed, the emotional connection is so vividly conveyed that, when set against the people working in the slaughterhouse (the film was shot unflinchingly in a real one), it is the animals who feel more human.

 

But what had seemed to be a deliberate contrast between two unconnected worlds turns out to be something else entirely when it emerges that Endre and Mária are sharing the same dreams, dreams that are in fact the first scenes that we have seen with Endre identifying with the deer and Mária with the doe. It could be said that a psychological interpretation of this link supplies its meaning. Mária is withdrawn and a loner, apprehensive of physical touch, while Endre too has limited contact with his employees and is self-conscious over having a crippled arm. Both of them, therefore, are unsure of themselves and their gradual rapprochement is mirrored by the dreams in which the two animals are drawn together too, but far more naturally and readily. 

 

With the extra bonus of some fine acting, On Body and Soul, unusual as it is, seems set to make its mark, but as it goes on there are two developments to be taken into account. One is a sub-plot about the theft of mating powder kept in a medicine cabinet which leads to suspicion falling on an employee with an eye for the ladies, Sanyi (Ervin Nagy). This takes up substantial footage but, despite its connection with the sexual, seems to be taking the picture in a different direction, even if it is the ensuing psychological screenings set up to help identify the culprit that lead to Endre and Mária first becoming aware of the dream connection between them. The other development is the increasing amount of humour in the film. It may have been present earlier but, if so, it has been overshadowed by the grim images of the work in the slaughterhouse. However, by the time that Endre and Mária are turning their attention to making themselves as appealing as possible to one another, the film is showing the absurd side of the human mating game as is confirmed by a scene in which Mária goes to a record shop to seek the ideal love music.

 

These aspects add to the uncertainty of where the film is headed and what pulls it down for me is related to the later stages in the story. Here I have to respect the duty of the critic not to give away plot details better not known to the viewer in advance but, without revealing any such details, I can make clear why I found the film, despite the mastery of the actual filmmaking, unsatisfactory. Just when the humorous element has become clearer, the film suddenly takes a totally different turn, but what might have been a tragic ending is itself then pushed in the opposite direction. Yet this conclusion, while leaving symbolism behind, lacks all sense of credibility and reality, so that you never feel that the narrative had reached it true and proper end. Others may totally disagree with my viewpoint or come up with some reading of their own as to what Ildikó Enyedi in her capacity as writer was trying to do. What is certain is that in her other capacity, that of director, she does extraordinarily impressive work here, and that's a very good reason for seeing On Body and Soul and making your own assessment of it. Anybody who greatly admired Kieślowski's The Double Life of Véronique (1991) will surely be among those ready to applaud this film.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Alexandra Borbély, Géza Morcsányi, Ervin Nagy, Zoltán Schneider, Tamás Jordan, Zsuzsa Járó, Réka Tenki, Júlia Nyakó, Itala Békés.

 

Dir Ildikó Enyedi, Pro Mónika Mécs, András Muhi and Emö Mesterházy, Screenplay Ildikó Enyedi, Ph Máté Herbai, Pro Des Imola Láng, Ed Károly Szalai, Music Ádám Balázs, Costumes Judit Sinkovics.

 

Films Boutique and Inforg/M&M Film-Mubi.
116 mins. Hungary/France. 2017. Rel: 22 September 2017. Cert. 18.