DIR/WRI: Ildikó Enyedi • PRO: Ernö Mesterházy, András Muhi, Mónika Mécs • DOP: Máté Herbai • ED: Károly Szalai • DES: Imola Láng• MUS: Adam Balazs • CAST: Géza Morcsányi, Alexandra Borbély, Zoltán Schneider
If any word accurately surmised the experience of On Body and Soul, it’s unconventional. It’s unconventional in how it sets up its characters, its plot, its setting, and even the timeframe doesn’t reveal itself until the film’s halfway mark. It’s unconventional in its direction, being simultaneously clinical and intimate with its characters and their vulnerabilities. It’s unconventional for being quite possibly the most chastely film about lust and desire ever executed to cinema. Yet in exploring ideas of romance, courtship, relationships, and love (themes well and truly covered all the way back to filmmaking’s inception), On Body and Soul is also unconventional in offering a near-transcendental experience that is both refreshing and insightful to watch.
From Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi (who won international acclaim at Cannes for My Twentieth Century in 1989), On Body and Soul plainly explores the growing conflictions between humanity’s natural biological urges for sex and companionship against the sterility of modern culture in everyday life. There undoubtedly are risks for such a premise to overbear itself on the film and its accessibility, an early scene demonstrating the killing process of a cow in an abattoir is as gratuitous as it is gruesome, but the seamless blend of calm visual design and music allow the story of two wounded introverts to feel immersive before even their introduction on screen.
The aforementioned two are Endre (Géza Morcsányi) and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), who find themselves unfathomably bound despite their inability to properly communicate to one another. For Endre, who has spent his life scheduled to a taut regime in a cold place of work, his ability to talk to another is either in succinct retorts or awkward small conversation. Mária, however, is far worse. Newly appointed as an inspector of all produced meats, Mária, exhibiting all the trademarks of someone with autism (yet never explicitly clear), finds her ability to converse with anyone near impossible. She spends her nights recreating verbatim her interactions with Endre, and even rehearses meticulously for their next conversation. However, when an incident involving stolen aphrodisiacs causes local authorities to begin an investigation on each employee, Endre and Mária are forced to confront what has connected them since they first met, and the inexplicable coincidences allows both to gradually open to one another with each passing night.
Dealing with such a broad theme with unusual methods, the screenplay, written by Enyedi herself, is cautious in its attempt to not overstep into absurdity or pretentiousness. On Body and Soul does not connote ideas of a biological hierarchy, adding repugnant supporting characters that purport themselves as “alpha-males,” but instead focuses just on human impulse as something that can be both natural and sensual as an expression. Perhaps it can be too cautious, however, as the film’s secret reveal undoubtedly adds to the story’s intriguing dynamic, but also sacrifices the narrative to a more repetitive beat. Not only does it become obvious where the story will conclude, but a test of patience waiting for that inevitable conclusion.
Those looking for a more interesting time at the cinema will undoubtedly find a lot to engage with in On Body and Soul, especially those who find themselves more romantically inclined than most, but it should be stressed that some people might find themselves detached by characters that are considerably discrepant from what might be expected from a love story. That doesn’t make them boring, however, and Maria is certainly one of the most intriguing and refreshing heroines in arthouse cinema in a while.
On Body and Soul can easily be surmised as an invitation to appreciate the complexity and fulfilment of deep intimacy with another person, and serves as a strong introduction for anyone unfamiliar to Ildikó Enyedi’s unique surrealist filmmaking.
On Body and Soul is released 22nd September 2017