On Body And Soul (Teströl és lélekröl)

Hungary (2017) Dir. Ildikó Enyedi

In dreams I walk with you

In dreams I talk to you

In dreams you’re mine all of the time

We’re together in dreams

Yup, that’s about the extent of my love life but imagine if dream lovers really did exist. Would that be cool or a nightmare waiting to happen?

Recently hired at an abattoir, quality controller Mária (Alexandra Borbély) hasn’t made any friends among her co-workers through her insular behaviour and exacting approach to her job. Despite this, unassuming older CFO Endre (Géza Morcsányi) tries to engage Mária with little luck. When cattle mating powder is stolen, a police psychologist Klára (Réka Tenki) is assigned to interview everyone and hopefully weed of the culprit.

During the interviews, Endre and Mária reveal independently that they have the same dream in which they are deer at a snowy riverside searching for food. This surprises both of them but it serves as a handy ice breaker and through this, they start to get to know one another whilst continuing to have shared dreams. This oneiric relationship eventually spills over into real life but can their dreams become reality?

On Body And Soul is a challenging film in many ways. It has a remarkable premise yet the presentation is anything but – and by that, I mean it isn’t full of fantasy imagery and wistful set pieces. Often bordering on arcane, the meandering pace and gentleness of the story is very dreamlike, drawing us in through the stillness of the camera, although lack of spark and energy won’t be for everyone.

It is a film where one wonders how other filmmaker would handle it. I know I wouldn’t be able to resist using songs like Roy Orbison’s In Dreams (quoted at the start of this review) or The Everly Brothers All I Have To Do Is Dream somewhere. I’m sure someone with a vivid and quirky imagination like Michel Gondry would indulge the dream aspect to its fullest, whilst Lars von Trier would leave us all mentally scarred for life.

Hungarian writer-director Ildikó Enyedi is a new name to me, maybe due to her not being the most prolific filmmaker with just eight feature credits to her name in the last 30 years. From this film I sense Enyedi is from the “show don’t tell” school of filmmaking but also somebody who doesn’t like to give everything away to her audience. There is a lot we are left to unpick when watching this curious opus, but Enyedi is a lot more accommodating ha some directors I could name in this regard.

There is a horrible but assuredly cogent irony in the setting being a slaughterhouse when the central romance is conducted between animals that are favoured game for hunters. If Enyedi was trying to turn people vegetarian, she may have succeeded – I might be a meat eater but I didn’t need to see a cow beheaded and sliced apart in graphic detail and you won’t enjoy it either.

Endre might be a little more sympathetic than some towards the fated cattle, judging by his response to the ignorance of Sanyi (Ervin Nagy), a cocky young stud he interviews and eventually gives a job to. Taking an instant dislike to Sanyi, he becomes the prime suspect in Endre’s eyes when the mating powder is stolen. And if you want to know what that is and why they have it at the abattoir, don’t expect for an explanation here.

Also without an explanation is Mária’s eccentric, disengaged personality. Apologies for being a bore about this again, but I naturally recognised many Autistic traits in her which Enyedi refuses to confirm or deny. Mária visits her psychologist except he works with children and she refuses to see one who deals with adults; at home after speaking with Endre, Mária re-enacts the conversation using toy figures, then works out the dialogue for the next day.

Mária’s childlike innocence, precision of detail, and robotic mien make her an outlier at work but that doesn’t stop Sanyi thinking her has a chance with her, much to Endre’s chagrin, although his gamine frame, greying hair and lame left arm doesn’t make him much of a catch either. He too has issues of his own – he may be quiet but he is also frank and blunt, and perhaps sexually repressed since he rebuked Klára’s flirty advances, but between him and Mária, he is positively gregarious.

Whether there is something symbolic about the deer in the dreams, of this is Enyedi being whimsical, is open to interpretation. I don’t know if they used CGI deer or found two very well behaved one but the serenity and grace of their scenes are oddly radiant given the sparse wintry grounds they wander. Like the rest of the film, they are lovingly photographed, with many shots worthy of being a tableau fit for a Christmas card.

Bolstered by strong performances all round, the two leads end up looking like the most normal of the lot from being unaffected by the life issues that blight the others. Géza Morcsányi makes for an unlikely male love interest but he is supposed to, but the star that shines the brightest is Alexandra Borbély. An extraordinary performance, she makes Mária quietly enigmatic as if she is an otherworldly being; she is pretty yet her features are suited to being a wallflower, and her ability to emote with just one facial expression is a rare skill indeed.

Summing up my feelings for On Body And Soul is not easy. I won’t pretend I understood it all but I got something from it and if being honest I wanted to like it more than I did. Yet, it spoke to me, maybe through Mária’s character or because I am a dreamer too. A thoughtful, touching, very sedate emotional paean to the lonely at heart, Enyedi’s unique vision brings a tender reality to the age old fantasy of being in love.