“On Body and Soul” opens with the tender, lyrical image of a deer and buck wandering across a snow-encrusted landscape. With time, it’s revealed that these affectionate animals represent the shared perspectives of dreamers Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the middle-aged manager of a Hungarian slaughterhouse, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), his much younger employee. Their inexplicable ability to join together in animal form after hours could easily turn absurd or painfully maudlin in the wrong hands. And it nearly does that, but writer-director Ildikó Enyedi mostly gets away with the outrageous scenario, injecting it with a touching, understated romanticism epitomized by that magisterial opening moment. Despite its otherworldly setup, “On Body and Soul” is grounded in familiar emotions.
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Enyedi’s name may not resonate around the world, but she’s been on the scene for quite some time, winning acclaim for her 1989 debut “My 20th Century,” which had an even more freewheeling surrealist approach. While she’s only made a handful of features since then, “On Body and Soul” — which won the Golden Bear at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival — will likely win her new admirers as well. The movie embraces an ethereal approach to the experience of being caught between waking and dreaming life reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep,” to the point where its whimsy has a noticeably derivative quality. At the same time, the story’s slow-burn approach and grounded performances endow it with undeniable insight into the isolation experienced by its characters in their working routine and how their unexpected union provides the ultimate solace.
At first, the wrinkled, stone-faced Endre seems like the last person to find time for romance. He runs a tight ship at the slaughterhouse, where grisly images of dead cows and processed meats add to the cold, systematic nature of factory life. The arrival of shy, socially maladroit Mária initially frustrates him. She’s incapable of engaging with the other staffers and ultimately winds up the subject of sexual harassment from their frat-like alpha males. The situation changes abruptly when the entire staff is subjected to “mental hygiene” screenings, which involves questions about their dreams. When Enyedi and Mária realize that their joint nighttime fantasies of careening through beautiful forestry together, “On Body and Soul” catapults from pensive, overly lethargic workplace drama into a fantasy rife with mystery. It’s a remarkable “What if” scenario that forces both loners to contemplate the ramifications of their peculiar bond.
So begins the experimentation: When not whispering to each other in the cafeteria, they chat before bedtime about their unconscious rendezvous, then take a stab at sleeping in the same room. They bond over late night chatter, but the extent to which they share feelings for each other remains unclear. Given their markedly different ages and professional statures, they hesitate to speak of their connection in personal terms, instead treating the situation as a shared problem they must solve together. Enyedi plays it straight, injecting little humor into the proceedings. The self-serious tone sometimes stifles an inherently strange setup, but it also allows this capricious drama to become a reasonable entry point for exploring a form of alienation that transcends the boundaries of age and gender.
While it doesn’t quite earn the patient approach, “On Body and Soul” finds its way to a sufficient payoff in the closing minutes. The movie builds to a near-devastating conflict that doesn’t reveal new information so much it deepens the fragility of its characters. As it becomes clear that no firm explanation for their situation will emerge, the movie forces viewers to take it at face value.
That’s a lot to ask, but “On Body and Soul” owes much to the credibility of its performances. Morcsányi endows his character with the sad, lived-in expression of a man resigned to his drab routine, but it’s breakout talent Borbély who truly emerges as the movie’s star. In her subdued, awkward manner, she creates a wondrous silent figure who closes herself off from the world around her — until she discovers the prospects of sharing it with someone else, and begins to wake up to her senses. Enyedi captures Mária lying alone on an open field, experiencing sprinklers and the moist grass as if the very sensations represent an epiphany of the senses. Such overbearing lyricism sometimes goes too far, and there are plenty of moments when Enyedi mistakes capriciousness for depth. But it’s an imminently watchable situation that remains unpredictable all the way through its shocking, violent finale, which reignites the tension between the characters in a whole new light.
While not perfect, “On Body and Soul” was an entirely reasonable candidate to win Berlin’s venerated Golden Bear, if only because it gets away with far more than one might assume on the basis of its premise alone — and in the process, turns its bizarre concept into a relatable one. By placing vastly different people into a situation in which they find common ground, it highlights the tantalizing idea that the minutiae of day-to-day problems matters less than the prospects of escaping them through companionship.
“On Body and Soul” premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.