On Body and Soul (2017) is a 2018 Oscar nominee from Hungary for Best Foreign Language Film, and won the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. The film is written and directed by Ildiko Enyedi, who won the Camera D’Or at Cannes for My Twentieth Century (1989), and is her first feature film since Simon, The Magician (1999). The film is an unconventional romance between two co-workers at a Hungarian meat processing plant, and there are a couple of brief, though graphic scenes early in the film that document some of the plant operations; viewers who are distressed by scenes of animal slaughter should avoid the film. The movie opens with a scene of a stag and doe cautiously approaching each other in a snow covered forest, before we are introduced to Endre (Geza Morcsanyi), the plant’s financial manager, who is immediately drawn to the newly hired quality control inspector, Maria (Alexandra Borbely) whom he observes from the perch of his office window while sipping coffee, a seemingly routine bit of voyeurism attuned to the floor workers break time on the docks below.
Endre is a droll, intelligent middle-aged man with a withered left arm who carries himself with casual authority. His closest friend appears to be Jeno (Zoltan Schneider), the plant’s blustering HR manager, who is introduced at lunch while explaining how you need to keep women on a short leash to maintain order, when his wife, who also works at the plant, walks up and tells him he needs to pick up the kids after work because she’s going out for drinks with her girlfriends. She doesn’t wait for an affirmative response. Endre asks Jeno about the new hire and is told she is haughty, a cold fish who comes across as too good for the work. Endre takes his leave and approaches Maria to introduce himself. She is beautiful, shy and anxious, and when she remarks in reply to his small talk about the cafeteria food that he must choose the pureed options because of his useless arm, it’s clear that she is somewhere on the autism spectrum. Endre doesn’t appear to understand that though and his insecurity reads it as rejection as he stammeringly tries to make it clear that he was just being friendly.
The inciting incident is a robbery of some kind of cattle super viagra from the plant’s pharmacy cabinet that found its way to a 50th reunion party and caused chaos. The comedy and absurdy of this is played with a straight face and Endre eventually explains that they sell the drug to their cattle suppliers as an additional revenue stream. The investigating officer accepts a routine bribe of meat to not report the incident further and suggests the plant move up their annual psychological evaluations of employees and substitute a psychologist that consults for the police to ferret out the thief. This consultant is a distractingly sexy woman who asks all manner of personal questions that she says are part of the standard test. Endre bristles at the questioning but accedes and replies to describe the previous night’s dream of being a stag in the forest, foraging for food and nuzzling with a doe. When Maria describes her dream of being a doe in the forest foraging for food through the snow and nuzzling a stag, the psychologist is angry, she calls them both into the office together, and refuses to believe that they haven’t conspired in their stories to humiliate her.
The dream romance grows into reality the next day as a suspicious Endre writes his night’s dream down and has Maria do the same before they read them together and confirm their psychic connection. That tentative understanding begins their eccentric courtship. They phone each other before they go to sleep at night preparatory to comparing memories the next day. Andre tries to overcome his insecurity and disbelief that a beautiful young woman could be in love with him, along with his reticence to begin another romantic relationship late in his life. While Maria, who has never had a romantic relationship, works to overcome her fear of being touched and her inability to read or convey social cues. She also has a couple of amusing sessions with her therapist. A child psychologist, his office is filled with toys and she’s clearly been seeing him her whole life, he practically begs her to take a referral to a colleague who deals with adults, and oblivious, she continues to bluntly ask about how to pursue her sexuality while he squirms with discomfort.
The central metaphor of bodies broken physically or imprisoned psychologically with the souls strong and free in the forest never feels forced or cliched. This juxtaposition being further contrasted with the mundane work of the slaughterhouse that hums quietly killing animals in the shadows to feed the city’s carnivores, it is not set in an insurance office or a box factory after all, implicitly asks how far do we extend the nobility of souls. There is a great deal of humor and real anguish to the tentative steps in the courtship between Endre and Maria and the lack of sentimentally keeps it well grounded and nicely observed. It’s a lovely, unconventional romance, better in some ways, if not weirder, than that one between a cleaning woman and a fish man last year, and the two leads are excellent. It also has a nice score featuring Laura Marling, and yes, the mystery of the bull viagra theft is solved in a satisfying fashion.
The film is currently streaming on Netflix and as it did not receive a review on AVC or other sites I viewed last year, I hadn’t heard about it, but it’s very good, an actual deserving Oscar nominee, and recommended for anyone that enjoys a good, weird romance leavened with dry humor and is not disturbed by the abattoir scenes.