Ever since I was a child, I’ve felt that pretty much the entirety of social conventions and interactions is something dense, awkward, and even physically painful at times. Every step of my school experience and every job I’ve had so far has been an endless parade of uncomfortable moments, that feeling of not belonging, or even complete absence, and the imperative necessity for isolation. Even worse, since I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and some degree of clinical depression, I’ve seen the people close to me, the people I love and care about, clumsily trying to adapt to me, to “the way I conduct myself through life”, deepening those conflicts further. That has been my struggle for as long as I can remember.
These are the very emotions that are at the heart of Ildikó Enyedi’s Golden Bear-winning feature On Body And Soul. The Hungarian film is a love story, for sure, but one whose main antagonist and obstacles are the stupidity and irrationality of the processes of everyday social life, and the crippling disconnect between this reality, that of the normal, the body, and the realm of dreams, where even the most distant of peoples can share a vision, that of the soul. It centers on the romance between Endre and Mária, two co-workers at a slaughterhouse, each of them uniquely introverted, trying to get by in a crushing environment, and the extraordinary, almost miraculous circumstances that unite them.
Mária (Alexandra Bórbely) is undoubtedly neurodivergent, probably on the autism spectrum, but the film is more concerned with this condition in order to illustrate her ─ or, most importantly, our ─ inability to connect with other people, and the intricacies of the emotions resulting from the brutality of the daily grind. She’s a brilliant, precise woman who, instead of dining or even exchanging words with those around her, works in the dark, in solitude. Her body language reveals a perpetual sense of frustration, which is what speaks to us. Endre (Géza Morcsányi), however, suffers from a different kind of disability, one that has to do with a lifetime of bad experiences, the jadedness of age and the traps of masculinity and its expectations. He’s the CFO of this abattoir, and the film makes it clear that the very nature of his job has contributed greatly to him being this introverted and lonely.
It is absolutely telling that Enyedi’s odd romantic drama takes place in a slaughterhouse, not only because it’s the element that gives cohesion to the whole film, but because, as the body to the story’s soul, everything that is noble, transcendent, and magical about it works in direct contrast to this setting. Throughout the film, we can see a lot of killing taking place. This mechanical process unfolds out in the open, and Enyedi’s insistence in framing this as a tedious, routine situation, even with its gore, captures the tone and mood of what Mária generally experiences in the outside world. It’s brutal. It’s boring.
Later in the film is where the wonders take place. Mária and Endre discover that they’ve both been having the same dream every night. They see themselves as deer, living in a snowy forest, sharing a moment that feels very human, something that is beyond…well, just beyond. This remarkable occurrence is powerful enough to bring them closer together, to break down some of the barriers between them, to make them fall in love. It’s destiny knocking at their door. It’s love as magic. It’s so fucking cheesy.
Nevertheless, this is where Enyedi’s directing genius resides. Instead of trying to tone down this over-the-top premise, she embraces it. In fact, her commitment to its camp spirituality is what makes this film so captivating. It is through the most preposterous of plot devices that the couple finally discovers their shared dream, which is what makes the story move, and however unlikely it may seem ─ we can basically blame the whole thing on animal Viagra ─ Enyedi’s brilliant juxtaposition of the images of the sterility of daily life, cattle that die violently and a stag and doe that feel more alive than any human in the story, convinces us that only something so strange could break these horrible cycles and give way to the truly beautiful.
Ultimately, we never forget that these are still two severely flawed human beings, and we can see their shortcomings bite back. As they approach each other, we can see their issues with intimacy, empathy and that sense of frustration that simply does not leave. It is difficult to be with another person. For them and us. And they’ll have to fight that battle. What they do have is their dream, a reflection of the most wonderful ideas, hopes, and illusions we share in our concepts of love. The deer make their dance every night in an ideal universe, one where all the lovers can embrace freely. The real world just can’t compete with that.
On Body and Soul is now streaming on Netflix.