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 romcom. The 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