Some eighteen years after her previous movie, Ildikó Enyedi triumphed at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival with this startling portrait of blossoming love in a Hungarian abattoir. Described by its director as “a shy love story,” On Body and Soul charts the relationship between laconic finance officer Endre and awkward quality-control inspector Mária as they realise that each night when they fall asleep they share the same dream, a dream where they are both deer in a snowy wilderness.
The film opens with one of these visions; the camera reveals a stag and doe padding softly through the forest, stopping to nuzzle each other. We are then transported to the inner workings of the slaughterhouse and everything that entails; a cow is stunned, killed and carved, blood washing over the floor. This immediately sets up the dichotomy at the heart of the film, between the body and soul of the title.
The daily life of the protagonists is almost hostile in its mundanity, as the abattoir employees set about their tasks with a sense of detachment in spite of the gore that surrounds them. We follow the two lonely souls at the centre of the narrative as they realise their inexplicable link and puzzle out what to do next. As Mária and Endre become consumed by their dreams, so the viewer falls under the spell that Enyedi weaves. Every performance, every camera angle is perfectly pitched so as not to disturb the heady sense of delicate beauty.
In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Mária approaches Endre in the canteen and says, “I think you are beautiful.” This is one of the few moments where a (human) character expresses their true feelings, and it is as awkward as you might imagine. The pair’s verbal clumsiness highlights the power of inarticulacy and the way fear renders us unable to say what we mean to the people we care about the most, yet the dreamworld Mária and Endre share at night goes beyond words, beyond the blood-spattered but dull circumstances they find themselves in. The only question is whether they can find a way to sustain the magic in daylight.