On deer and slaughterhouses

’On Body and Soul’ tells a tale of dream lovers.

’On Body and Soul’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
’On Body and Soul’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hebrew title: Al Guf ve Nefesh
Directed by Ildiko Enyedi
With Géza Morcsanyi, Alexandra Borbély
Running time: 116 minutes In Hungarian.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Ildiko Enyedi’s On Body and Soul is a truly strange drama/romance about two alienated, lonely people who come together. It weaves a spell that will entrance you while you are watching it, although afterwards, in the cold light of the lobby, certain plot turns — possibly the entire premise — may strike you as so absurd that you may not understand why or how you enjoyed it as much as you did.
All of this is to say that it’s original, a quality greatly prized by movie critics, which is perhaps less important to people who go to the movies once a month than it is to those who see several a week.
This Hungarian film won the Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2017, in a competitive year. It tells the story of Endre (Géza Morcsanyi), the manager of a slaughterhouse, and the halting romance that develops between him and a young qualitycontrol inspector, Maria (Alexandra Borbély). The two would naturally be adversaries and, as in many romances, they start out by actively disliking each other. Endre is older, divorced and tries to act like a regular guy, listening impassively as his co-worker complains about his wife. But he gives the sense that he is always on guard, holding back something. Maria, on the other hand, is so awkward and frightened that she doesn’t seem to reveal anything of herself, except for her anxiety. Although she is beautiful, no one approaches her except to tease her. Both are realists and both are good at their jobs, but otherwise they couldn’t be more different, until we learn that they share an unusual, even supernatural, bond.
The movie opens with a scene of two deer in a snowy forest, a male and a female. These idyllic shots are juxtaposed with some of the grittiest, most difficult-towatch moments of work in the slaughterhouse. The deer represent soul, and the slaughterhouse scenes are the body. Much as we may aspire to exist in the former realm, the director seems to be saying, we are firmly stuck in the latter. Endre and Maria would seem to be stuck separately in different aspects of the physical realm as well, until they discover that they are meeting in their dreams each night. He is the stag and she is the doe, and in the woods in their nocturnal meetings, they are in love.
The mechanism by which they discover their mutual dream is extremely clunky and involves the theft of Viagra powder for cattle and a sexy psychologist who interviews all the employees. But as contrived as this plot gets, the movie is not dull. Once they discover that they meet in their dreams, they have to decide how to handle the strange intersection of their dream lives and work lives, and whether they can have a connection outside of work. As their love story plays out, it becomes increasingly conventional and somewhat less convincing.
But the character of Maria, who is portrayed as a high-functioning woman with autism (as she tries to navigate the romance, she returns to her childhood speech therapist and acts out social interactions with her old Playmobil dolls), is unusual enough to keep the movie going even as it threatens to become overly sweet.
Both lead actors are convincing in their roles. Borbély has the trickier part, and she has to make us believe that such a beautiful and accomplished young woman could be so withdrawn. Endre is more of a typical guy’s guy, and you can imagine a younger Clint Eastwood playing him if this movie were remade in an English version.
I couldn’t help wondering what On Body and Soul would have been like if the leads were less conventionally good looking. It’s likely that it would have been more realistic but also harder to sit through. On Body and Soul is enchanting in some ways and frustrating in others. Its poetry may charm you, but its contrivances will irritate you.
One final note. Instead of the usual disclaimer, in the credits for this film, it says, “Some animals were harmed during filming, but none of them for the sake of this film.”