On Body and Soul

Sweet dreams are made of this

If someone tells you they’ll see you in their dreams, you probably won’t be expecting to drift off into the land of never, reappearing as deer where you’ll both forage for juicy leaves amongst the snow covered undergrowth. This search for human connection is what drives Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s Golden Bear winner, On Body and Soul. As eccentric and beguiling as it occasionally can be, at its heart the film is a romantic comedy, bringing together two lonely souls from the opposite ends of the relationship spectrum. By day they work in an abattoir and at the night their spirits come together to explore a shared dreamscape.

While not exactly the standard set-up you’ve come to expect in a romantic comedy, there is a poeticism that lends itself to the nightly forays into this dream world, where stag and doe quietly share each other’s company. Back in the real world, Endre (Géza Morcsányi) is the Financial Director at a slaughterhouse, while Mara (Alexandra Borbély), is the newly recruited quality inspector. Endre’s left arm hangs limp and crippled by his side due to an accident some years ago, an incident that saw him withdraw from social interaction. New HR directives mean he has to return to eat in the staff canteen where he spots the commonly disliked Maria.

Her OCD attention to detail has upset almost all of her colleagues, a fact that Endre is utterly unconcerned with, rather it’s a trait that intrigues him. Enyedi draws a parallel between both of their disabilities; Endre’s physical impairment that remains unexplained and Maria’s completely overwhelming lack of social skills. They are drawn together when a batch of cattle mating powder is stolen from the factory and the police call in a psychiatrist (Réka Tenki) to question the employees, hoping to discover some clues. To the puzzlement of not only the psychiatrist but both Maria and Endre, they learn the dreams they have been having at night are identical and take tentative steps to find out more.

In comparison to Maria, Endre has at least lived a life, building a successful career, living through a marriage and raising a daughter. He is now far more reclusive but at the very least he can engage in conversation far easier than Maria. Her deadpan expression and robotic state of mind draws out quite a bit humour as she tries to reconnect with her emotions. Similar to Endre, something has happened in her past to make her this way, with the only clue being the brief conversations we see between Maria and her psychiatrist, who continues to insist she should now be seeing an adult counsellor given her age.

Rather than exploit these scars, they are left as breadcrumbs leading away from their personality. Instead, the fun is found in watching Maria figuring out human sentiment by watching hardcore porn without a flicker on her face while casually chewing on sweets. Or, when trying to create a romantic atmosphere she heads out to buy the appropriate music. Except, she hasn’t got a clue about the CDs she’s collecting and stands at the counter with a blank face as death metal blasts through the listening headphones. Not everything is sweetness and light, however, and Enyedi readily embraces the darker moments too, with a last act suicide attempt mined for unexpected comedic effect.

Both actors do well in their respective roles with Borbély asked to take Maria on more of a humane journey back into the real world. Although a story about both characters finding a sense of unexpected salvation, it remains very much Maria’s film. This is Morcsányi’s first ever role at the age of 65, which is surprising to hear given how easily he settles into the character. The dream world we visit only a few times is sorely missed the further we become removed from it and the lyrical nature of these picturesque scenes place the film on the edge of something far more meaningful. Despite always threatening to do so, it never quite manages to take those risks and it’s a little frustrating it can’t walk those final few steps towards greatness.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Sep 21, 2017

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