Coming almost 30 years after Ildikó Enyedi’s extraordinary breakthrough feature, Az én XX. századom (My Twentieth Century, 1989), and 18 years since her last, Simon mágus (Simon, the Magician), Teströl és lélekröl (On Body and Soul) may have seemed like a return from the wilderness. The film’s exquisite and poised opening images, showing a male and female deer walking through the falling snow while tentatively intermingling, partly pictorializing this risky metaphor. But Enyedi remained busy across this “hiatus” working in short film and television production (including many episodes of the Hungarian version of the Israeli series, BeTipul [In Treatment]), raising a family, teaching at the Hungarian film school, and failing, inevitably, to complete a range of projects. For many of us encountering On Body and Soul on the film festival circuit in 2017, after it was awarded the Golden Bear and other prizes at Berlin, the film was a quiet revelation, a calmly strange, carefully orchestrated tale of two high-ranking workers in an ultra-modern abattoir, quality inspector Mária (Alexandra Borbély) and chief financial officer Endre (Géza Morcsányi), who gradually fall in love as they share a dream from night to night.

On Body and Soul’s central conceit is its most daring characteristic, a high-wire act risking easy ridicule as a whimsical, poetic, magic-realist, post-Kieslowskian take on the shared realms of the human and the animal, the industrial and the natural, the urban and the rural, the male and the female, material reality and dream. It is difficult to pinpoint just how Enyedi’s film manages to avoid the potentially ridiculous and overly contrived elements of this set up, but partly this comes down to its unhurried nature, the prickly, inscrutable dimensions of its two central characters, the overall realism of the drama and its surrounds, even in its lyrical dream sequences, and the focus on precise, everyday details of environment, gesture, and composition. Although the counterpoint between human and animal, countryside and factory, home and abattoir, reality and dream, may seem a little overplayed, and appear even too boldly poetic, On Body and Soul insists on the equivalence and interdependence of each realm. In an early moment we see a watery, cloud-covered sun from the optical viewpoint of both an abattoir worker and a cow soon to meet its death. But rather than such a juxtaposition being deployed for the sake of irony, this shared perspective is both mysterious and concrete, a moment outside of the developing drama and inextricably welded to it.

Enyedi’s film is, of course, overwhelmingly concerned with the idiosyncratically human, but its attentiveness to the moment or instant – a gestalt sense of momentary consciousness – highlights a shared set of experiences between human characters and species. This is further highlighted by the ways in which the pair of deer wandering through Endre and Mária’s dreams are both avatars for the human couple and complete, distinct animals in their own right. The two human characters claim to embody their male and female counterparts in the animal/dream world, but we view the deer through a much less anthropomorphic framework. Though these images “in dreams” are beautiful they are also as concrete and realistic as any others. We strain to understand and interpret the actions of the deer and what they might mean or imply, even as we intuit correspondences between these human and animal figures. Everything and everyone are both knowable and unknowable, much like On Body and Soul itself.

On Body and Soul is both a development of Enyedi’s assured, calm, and measured style and a continuation of the key themes that have defined her work across shorts, television, and seven features. The porous relationship between dream and reality, subjectivity and objectivity, the unobtrusively surreal and the real, is a constant as are the almost telepathic connections forged between specific characters across the realms of space, place, and daily life. While My Twentieth Century draws upon the larger movements and contours of history and technological development, in its story of twin girls born and separated on the same day Edison invented the lightbulb, On Body and Soul is a more intimate, measured, microcosmic, and exquisitely tender work. It takes its time to develop and focus upon the relationship between Endre and Mária, as the narrative gradually establishes their shared and developing intimacy. While the dream sequences of the deer provide pristine vistas and uncluttered compositions, the often-clinical images of day-to-life life in the abattoir, or in the characters’ apartments, are heightened by framing that fragments the body or views figures through the scrim of bars, doors, and window frames and panes. The abattoir scenes themselves are sometimes confronting but never gratuitous. This is not a movie about the barbarity of food production or even its negative impact on those involved. It uses this specific and carefully chosen environment as a means of providing a heightened portrait of an idiosyncratic but largely unremarkable set of characters along with their slightly off-centre physical interactions. This gently forensic quality is further underscored by the scenes featuring a psychologist who is brought in to analyse the workers to determine which of them might have stolen some “mating powder” from the facility. In other hands these scenes may have seemed contrived, even ridiculous – why would you bring in a psychologist to question the workers over this action? – but Enyedi enriches these exchanges through careful shot choices, odd points of emphasis, and the complex insights they grant into these otherwise reticent characters. In the process, and in the fusing of the oneiric and the everyday, we almost forget that the driving narrative logic of these scenes is to inform Endre and Mária that they share the same dream.

Ultimately, the chief concern of On Body and Soul is human contact. Both Mária and Endre are damaged “bodies” and “souls” who come together to make an unlikely couple. Mária is much younger than Endre and appears to be autistic, with much of the film taken up by her painful journey towards intimacy. This is gradual, partial, awkward, and mostly follows the couple becoming aware of their shared dream. We are shown a scene of Mária cluelessly asking to listen to a mountain of CDs, hoping to randomly find a piece of music that might provoke an affective response (with the shop assistant’s help she identifies Laura Marling’s extraordinary “What He Wrote”, with ambiguously catastrophic results). We see her hesitatingly reach out to the penned in cows and squeeze a plate of mashed potato through her fingers, as well as replaying and restaging the conversations of the day with figurines. This builds to the penultimate, if still uncertain, expression of intimacy and tactility with Endre, moving from stilted phone conversations (though she must purchase a phone first, having previously avoided such interpersonal technologies) and post-dream debriefs to meals, co-habitation (where they sleep in the same room to facilitate an immediate discussion of their dreams upon awakening), and the final sexual “consummation”. The beauty of On Body and Soul lies in the concrete ambiguities and tenderness of the actions, dreams, and realities of its characters as well as its poetic rendering of landscape and environment. It is an exquisitely measured film that builds to its final, fully earned fade to white. The last exchange between Mária and Endre casts some doubt over whether their dreams will survive more mundane physical contact, the sound of the wind across a frozen landscape characteristic of the very careful use of ambient sound and atmospheric music throughout. They stay with us as images and sounds of both departure and return.

Teströl és lélekröl/On Body and Soul (2017 Hungary 116 mins)

Prod Co: Inforg-M&M Film Kft. Prod: Ernõ Mesterházy, András Muhi, Mónika Mécs Dir, Scr: Ildikó Enyedi Phot: Máté Herbai Ed: Károly Szalai Prod Des: Imola Láng Mus: Ádám Balázs

Cast: Alexandra Borbély, Géza Morcsányi, Réka Tenki, Zoltán Schneider, Ervin Nagy, Itala Békés

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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