Monthly Archives: September 2017

  • On Body and Soul

    Testről és lélekről

    Ildikó Enyedi (2017)

    A beautiful snowy forest of great bare trees; the only animals in evidence are a solitary buck and doe.  The male approaches and sniffs the female.  You know what’s coming next, except that it doesn’t.  The buck doesn’t mount the doe; after brief nasal contact, they wander away from each other.  This is the opening sequence of On Body and Soul, the first cinema feature in eighteen years from the Hungarian writer-director Ildikó Enyedi.  It adumbrates the plot of an unusual and absorbing film (which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival) – about the intimate relationship of a woman and a man who don’t, until the final few minutes, have sex with each other.

    It’s hard to summarise the scenario and key details of On Body and Soul without giving the impression of a virtual parody of Central European arthouse cinema, mixing bleakness and bizarrerie to offputting effect.  Mária (Alexandra Borbély) and Endre (Géza Morcsányi) both work in an abattoir.  He’s the chief financial officer; she’s a newly appointed quality control person.  The film’s first half hour includes grim sequences of animal slaughter.  In the climax Mária uses a piece of glass to cut her wrist while she’s taking a bath.  The blood in the water and, a few moments later, dripping onto the floor of her apartment recalls the earlier bovine bloodshed.  Mária wounds her left wrist – an act both gruesomely real and symbolic.  It confirms that she and Endre, whose left arm is crippled, are made for each other.  On Body and Soul sounds awful on paper.  To watch it is something else.

    The deer in the forest reappear several times.  They are in a dream that’s not only recurring but dreamt by both protagonists.  This comes to light when a police psychologist, Klára (Réka Tenki), arrives at the slaughterhouse to interview all the staff individually.  Klára is irritated when each of Endre and Mária separately describes their dream of the previous night in identical terms:  The psychologist assumes they’ve cooked this up together and are having a laugh at her expense.   In fact, the revelation that they share a dream (the film seems to assume that people have just one per night’s sleep) amazes Endre and Mária.  It marks the start of a new stage in their interactions which have so far consisted of occasional, halting conversations in the workplace cafeteria.

    Ildikó Enyedi describes a world that’s sexualised to an almost absurd degree and places at its centre two very different celibates:  Mária can’t form relationships; Endre, who is decades her senior, has had enough of them.  His usual lunch companion, the HR head Jenö (Zoltán Schneider), talks about either his unsatisfactory marriage or the women he fancies.  The police psychologist comes to the abattoir to investigate who’s been stealing a Viagra-type drug for cows that’s kept on the premises.  Not only do her questions major on the sexual histories and unconscious lives of the workforce; Klára’s appearance and mannerisms are comically provocative.  Before and after their interviews, the staff discuss her looks or joke about sex more generally.  The employees range in age from the young slaughterman Sanyi (Ervin Nagy) – suspected, wrongly as it turns out, of the theft of the bull potency powder – to the wizened cleaner Zsóka (Itala Békés).  Later on, Zsóka gives Mária some tips on how to get a man.

    This is easier said than done for the Aspergic-autistic heroine.  Her savant specialty is a total recall of dates, words and sequences:  when the astonished Endre tests this, Mária tells him, without hesitation, the seventeenth sentence he ever spoke to her.  After their first meeting at work, Mária re-enacts it at home with a salt-and-pepper cruet; she later graduates to using human figures made from Lego for the same purpose.  She increasingly wants to get closer to Endre but she doesn’t know what to do.  She seeks the advice of a child therapist (Tamás Jordán) who treated her in her girlhood.  Mária makes various conscientious attempts to become normal.  She gets her first mobile phone but that’s no solution to another kind of isolation:  she can’t bear physical contact.  She watches porn until the therapist warns her off that.  Instead, she starts training herself to tolerate being touched, as well as gazing in a public park at the lovemaking of others (and getting understandably suspicious looks in return).  For the first time in her life, she buys and plays love songs – to be precise, one song:  the haunting Laura Marling ballad ‘What He Wrote’.

    Sixtyish Endre has a daughter who’s older than Mária.  His past love life has included a fling with Jenö’s wife Zsuzsa (Zsuzsa Járó).  It’s clear from the start that Endre finds Mária physically attractive but this melancholy man, a decent and considerate boss, isn’t – or doesn’t want to be – keen to start a new physical relationship. (He gets very angry with Klára’s line of questioning.)  Their curious kinship leads Endre to suggest and Mária to agree they should sleep together – that is, in the same room but in separate beds – so they can compare dream notes at the earliest opportunity.  The experiment fails because Mária is still uncomfortable with Endre’s physical proximity.  He is more and more sexually frustrated.  After resorting to a less-than-one-night stand with Zsuzsa (he asks her to leave once they’ve had sex) and exasperated with himself, he ends the platonic friendship with Mária.  That triggers her bath-time self-harming – taking her tactility training to a hideous new level.  This is a prelude, one assumes, to suicide; then her phone rings and she rushes to answer the call from Endre, who, of course, has had second thoughts.  She gets patched up at hospital, discharges herself and goes to Endre’s apartment, where they properly sleep together.

    On Body and Soul has the quality of a fable.  As the above ‘of course’ implies, it’s also structured – and it functions – as a very singular romcomThe principals, cut off from others and from one other in conventional terms, are connected by something impossible to the rest of the world.  Their shared dream makes Endre and Mária almost literally soulmates.  The pairing of the two main actors is highly effective.   The ice-blonde Alexandra Borbély is an appropriately inchoate presence, an affecting blend of android and vulnerable.  In his native Hungary, Géza Morcsányi is known not as an actor but as a book publisher, translator of classic Russian plays and dramaturge at the Radnóti Theatre in Budapest.  Morcsányi gives a superbly judged performance, making especially good use of his alert, humorous eyes.  There is plenty of humour in the film – not least Mária, in the terra incognita of a music store, asking to listen to a mountain of CDs there and then.  At closing time, when the store’s puzzled manager has to put an end to this, his colleague hurriedly recommends Laura Marling.

    Ildikó Enyedi, with the help of her cinematographer Máté Herbai, ennobles the non-human animals in the film – the ill-fated cattle as well as the abstemious deer.  Enyedi somehow gives the beasts a sensitivity – finer feelings – without anthropomorphising them.  She complements this by characterising humanity as primarily randy but she does so good-naturedly.  In their unprecedentedly relaxed closing conversation over breakfast, Endre asks Mária what she dreamt of after they made love the night before.  She replies that she doesn’t think she dreamt at all.  The film’s final shot shows the forest snowscape once more, this time without a deer in sight.  It’s a nicely ambiguous end to On Body and Soul.   The coalescence of love and sex they’ve just achieved together may have made the couple’s dream redundant.  On the other hand, that empty forest has an intimidating aspect.  Mária and Endre can’t rely on fantasy any more:  they’ll have to make things work in reality.

    26 September 2017

  • Dolores Claiborne

    Taylor Hackford (1995)

    Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) is a middle-aged dogsbody, suspected of murdering her rich, infirm employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) in her mansion on Little Tall Island, Maine.  The news that the local police are questioning Dolores brings her successful journalist daughter Selena St George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), from whom she’s long been estranged, back home to Maine from New York City.  The rift between them dates from the death of Joe St George (David Strathairn), Dolores’s husband and Selena’s father, twenty years previously, for which the daughter believes her mother was responsible.  Selena’s suspicions are shared by John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), the detective who failed to put Dolores away for Joe’s death and is determined to make amends by nailing her for Vera’s.

    Stephen King’s novel Dolores Claiborne appeared in 1992.  A pity it wasn’t decades earlier:  the film of the book, entertaining yet heavy-handed, might have been better made in the late 1930s or 1940s.  It’s not just that the piece evokes the maternal self-sacrifice and filial ingratitude melodramas of those years.   A forties Hollywood treatment would like have been more easily stylised and noir-ishly integrated:  in Taylor Hackford’s version, the horror-movie and straight dramatic elements often seem to be competing for the spotlight.  The climactic showdown – involving Dolores, Mackey, his young police colleague (John C Reilly), a magistrate (Roy Cooper) and, right on cue, Selena – is cornier and creakier than it would be if the narrative wasn’t elsewhere straining for the realism Hackford deems appropriate for his male domestic violence and abuse theme.

    Although the way that theme is realised on screen might seem to modernise Dolores Claiborne, the picture isn’t short of time-honoured suspense mechanisms.   It belongs to the protagonist-who-means-to-kill-but-doesn’t tradition (A Place in the Sun is perhaps the paradigm) – it gives two examples of this for the price of one, or just about.  Taylor Hackford’s staging of the death of Vera Donovan at the start makes it obvious that he’s omitting important information.  We immediately and rightly suspect that Vera doesn’t fall downstairs, as is implied, following a push from her carer.  And that, although Dolores is poised to bring a rolling pin down on the prostrate Vera’s head when the postman (Wayne Robson) arrives to interrupt this coup de grâce (and to discover the old woman is already dead), there must be an exonerating reason for that.  Halfway through, Hackford reprises the sequences with the crucial bits added.  (Vera herself was responsible for the downstairs plunge.  She then demanded that Dolores finish her off.)   Dolores does lure Joe to his death, doing all she can to ensure that he drops through a hole in the ground to the bottom of a disused well, but he falls – he isn’t pushed.  Besides, Dolores’s motive is entirely honourable:  she brings about her husband’s death for the sake of Selena.

    The film is less feminist than misandrist. The alcoholic Joe St George beats his wife and molests his daughter, as well as filching their life savings.  Local lads jeer at Dolores and daub her shack with accusative graffiti.  Back in New York, Selena’s editor (Eric Bogosian) appears to bestow journalistic favours on whichever woman in the office he’s currently sleeping with.  It’s Vera Donovan who recommends mariticide to Dolores and virtually admits personal experience of the crime, having caused the car ‘accident’ that killed her philandering husband (Kelly Burnett).  Vera, whose collection of ornamental pigs seems a nod to the porcine world of Misery’s Annie Wilkes, also coins the film’s key line, repeated by both Dolores and Selena – ‘Sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman can hold onto’.  One of the highlights of Selena’s career to date was an interview with Jean Harris, who, in 1980, really did kill her long-term lover, Herman Tarnower of Scarsdale diet fame, when he started an affair with his much younger secretary.

    Joe St George’s disappearance down the well and the build-up to this coincide with a solar eclipse – and make for what is, visually and atmospherically, the most enjoyably melodramatic episode.   The narrative moves back and forth between the 1990s present and the main characters’ past lives, leading up to the eclipse in 1975.  Kathy Bates, physically convincing as Dolores at every age, dominates the film.  The role doesn’t allow her to have the imaginative ball she had with Annie Wilkes – or the audience to have such a ball watching her.  Although she shares some of Annie’s amusing verbal idiosyncrasies, Dolores is conceived as more serious business:  Bates gives what is, in comparison to Misery, a self-consciously major performance.  But she varies the emotional temperature with great skill.  She does a fine job of embodying the toll that years of drudgery, insults and hostility have taken on the heroine.  When Dolores sees scenes from her past life before her eyes, Kathy Bates convinces you she’s really seeing them.

    Jennifer Jason Leigh is mannered and hollow as Selena although the fault may lie with Tony Gilroy’s script as much as with Leigh:  the part has been worked up from a relatively minor one in King’s novel.  It feels artificial – merely a plot requirement – that Selena delays facing the truth of what her father made her do until it’s time for her volte face and reconciliation with Dolores.  There’s a good continuity, though, between Leigh and the children who play the younger Selena (Taffara Jessica Stella Murray as a five-year-old, the affecting Ellen Muth as a teenager).

    Christopher Plummer makes Mackey pompously wily:  you really want Dolores to get the better of him.  As Mackey’s decent young sidekick, John C Reilly is a nice combination of uneasy and exasperated.  A few months earlier, Reilly and David Strathairn had also been together in the cast of The River Wild.   Strathairn seemed a rather obvious candidate for his role in the earlier film, though he eventually did a good job.  He’s a much more surprising choice for Joe St George and the result is the same.  At first, you feel he’s having to work very hard to be a nasty piece of work but Strathairn gradually gets inside Joe.  He has a lot of integrity as an actor:  in the end, he makes a more startling impression than someone more naturally equipped to play a vicious blowhard might have done.   Judy Parfitt is very deliberate as the outrageously demanding Vera Donovan but she’s forceful and witty too.  None of the actors needs the assistance of Danny Elfman’s overwrought score.

    24 September 2017

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