Present Physicality

Award-winning Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi returns with her first film since 1999’s Simon The Magician. Her latest piece, On Body and Soul, won the Golden Bear at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. Impressively, it adds to the Camera D’Or she claimed in Cannes for her first feature, 1989’s comedy-drama about identical twins My Twentieth Century.

On Body and Soul is a poetic tale as fascinated in the spiritual as the corporeal. The film is set in an abattoir on the outskirts of Budapest, although it begins elsewhere: a picture postcard snowy woodland scene where two deer gently nuzzle each other. It’s a scenario that Enyedi will cut back to more than once, though with only a mysterious explanation on offer.

Back in the slaughterhouse, the firm’s lonely, middle-aged financial director, Endre (Géza Morcsányi) quietly goes about his business. One day, he notices Mária (Alexandra Borbély), the new quality control inspector. An obsessive-compulsive, when she’s not fastidiously arranging her salt-and-pepper pots, she is rigorously grading the meat produced in the abattoir.

When a pharmaceutical goes missing from the company medicine cabinet, the police are called in and the detective suggests Endre bring in a psychologist (Réka Tenki) to root out any unusual behaviour in the workers. What she manages to discover is something slightly more off-kilter. Both Mária and Endre dream the same dream, imagining they are deer in the forest; are they the creatures we keep spying in the woods?

As these two solitary humans discover their connection, Enyedi begins to explore the idea – albeit very obliquely – that these two meet when they fall asleep. It’s an intriguing notion, that in a world where humans are increasingly isolated – and these two really find it hard to physically bond – we can find emotional strength in our interior life. Even armed with this knowledge, Mária and Endre struggle for intimacy.

The film is full of contrasting images: beauty and cruelty are almost casually juxtaposed, notably with a graphic sequence depicting the dismembering of a cow in the abattoir and a bloody finale that some will object to. It’s not a film that throws up straightforward catharsis either. But On Body and Soul aims – and sometimes succeeds – to stimulate both the heart and the head.

James Mottram

On Body and Soul is now open in cinemas. For more information:

1. Still from On Body and Soul.