On Body and Soul is a remarkable film in many ways: the cinematography makes decapitation of a cow mesmerising for its beauty as much as its horror; the unusual, alluring premise of a shared dream-life resonates extraordinarily well with our fundamental desire for intimacy; and the critical success of director Ildikó Enyedi, who returns after decades with such a heartfelt and sincere film, is a compelling story in and of itself. For me, it was also a special film in its singularity. I have never been so thoroughly enchanted by a film for most of its runtime only to leave the theatre irritated and disappointed. On Body and Soul squanders its more exceptional possibilities to become a dark but twee romantic comedy.
The film opens with a scene from Maria (Alexandra Borbély) and Endre’s (Géza Morcsányi) shared dreamscape: two deer in a quiet, ice-clad forest. The contrast between the still depths of winter and the skittish wide-eyed animals imparts a beguiling sense of interiority; it’s that strange and satisfying feeling, often found in dreams and rarely when awake, of an environment being occupied or even conjured by human psyche. As we move between the dream and reality, the residue of this feeling lingers and imparts a certain representational intimacy to the slaughterhouse workers. They are not reduced to their daily work; although it’s often inchoate, a sense of the personality and inner lives of more peripheral characters pads out the space around Maria and Endre’s arc. Enyedi has a knack for skilfully developing characters and relationships, often with only minutes of screen time, and the minor arcs of Maria and Endre’s coworkers are compelling and quite rich.
Máté Herbai’s cinematography shines in slaughterhouse scenes: the flirtations and vexations of the workers, often shot from oblique angles; Maria’s silhouette traced by the blue light of her computer screen; and even the gorier shots of blood being swept into drains and death-slackened muscles shifting with gravity as cattle are hung from hooks. As the film progresses, our focus upon the relationship between Maria and Endre intensifies and the tired tropes of heteronormativity crowd out the interpersonal nuances that made the first half of the film so satisfying. While in the slaughterhouse the romanticism of the cinematography and Enyedi’s direction perfectly offsets the brutality of the work and the starkness of the setting, many of the domestic scenes that frame the inner lives of the two leads are too obvious in their depiction of urban alienation and veer towards sentimentality. Their bond is most interesting, most compelling, when it isn’t underwritten by sex or structured by a romantic teleology: when they are two coworkers, strangers, who find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly bonded by a shared emotional experience.
This failure to deliver on the surreal, the fumbling of a magical intimacy created by situating Maria and Endre in the perfect cusp of the dreamscape and the slaughterhouse, is a disappointment. My irritation with the film arises from an ensuing but separate concern: the unnecessary submission to heteronormativity is accompanied by the objectification of Maria, and her autism. As we see more of Endre’s life – relationships with a friend, an ex, his daughter – it becomes more apparent that we see none of Maria’s relationships. The only exception is her childhood therapist, who coaches her on social behaviour and strategies. Perhaps she really has no other relationships. But this, as her sole connection outside the workplace, only reinforces the reduction of her character to a condition. Maria’s social difficulties and her apparent absence of other significant interpersonal experiences eventually seem to be woven into the romantic and sexual role that develops: her quirks are cast as quaint and her isolation as naivety, perhaps even innocence. This is reiterated in a scene with Endre’s ex, who seems to be positioned to cut a direct contrast with Maria: the ex is older, brunette, sexually and physically comfortable, presumptuous, casually vocal. She is also treated with disregard by Endre, who is apparently too enamoured with Maria to afford his ex lover much care. (That’s what happens if there’s a One in the story and it’s not you, I guess.)
Never fear, though – Maria eventually surmounts that pesky obstacle of her aversion to touch, gives herself over to the bliss of heterosex (although you wouldn’t know it by the achingly uncomfortable consummation scene, where Endre grunts and thrusts over her as she lies motionless), and their shared dreams subsequently cease. I can only assume that this is the result of a happy unification of the titular body and soul: once their bond is fully actualised in the way that can only occur when a man and a woman fuck, they have no need to meet each other in spirit in a quiet forest.