' ' Cinema Romantico: On Body and Soul

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On Body and Soul

Set principally in a Budapest slaughterhouse, an early shot in “On Body and Soul” finds a cow penned into a corral in close-up. If this is generally how most of us think of cattle, waiting around to be turned into beef, that assumption is immediately challenged as the shot reverses so that we sort of see the cow’s point-of-view, looking over its shoulder, as the animal looks out a nearby window and toward the sun, which is pushing through the gray clouds. Then the movie cuts to one of its two principal characters, Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the slaughterhouse’s financial manager, gazing out his office window and soaking up that same sun. In that moment, humankind is linked with the cattle, evincing the idea that our souls are no different than theirs, challenging our proclivity to view them as nothing more than our meat, a challenge made even more explicit during a lengthy scene shortly after that spares none of the grisly slaughterhouse details.

Director Ildikó Enyedi, however, is not content to merely let the parallels lie there. No, her opening images are of a stag and a doe in the snowy wilderness. And while these scenes, returned to throughout and juxtaposing nature’s majesty against nature re-ordered by man in the slaughterhouse, are eventually revealed as something apart from what we initially think, they also evoke a National Geographic special, a live look at these deer in their habitat. And though Enyedi’s vision is far more formalist than, say, the hidden cameras of “Planet Earth: Blue Planet”, that is still sort of what “On Body and Soul” comes to resemble, a National Geographic special for people, at least until its back half when the narrative gives itself completely over to its central romance involving kindred misfits and sacrifices much of its edge for quirky romance.

Up until that point, the film focuses on the day to day of the slaughterhouse, where Mária (Alexandra Borbély), the new quality inspector, initially makes life difficult for Endre with her exacting standards. Enyedi, however, shows little interest in the specifics of the business’s inner-workings, preferring to equate the office environment with those cattle corrals. Fewer scenes take place in offices than in the lunchroom, where Endre typically eats Jenö, played by Zoltán Schneider in a comically droll performance that almost entirely involves him shoveling food into his mouth as he grunts observations between bites, as if fattening himself up to continue with such drudgery. His observations frequently involve, shall we say, political incorrectness, whether it is about his own wife, whom Endre once dated, or Mária, who Endre can’t help but ogle in spite of himself.

This sort of sexually charged talk is further invoked in the theft of powder from the slaughterhouse that is employed to make the animals mate. The police are summoned, but so is a psychologist, Klára (Réka Tenki), enlisted to review each employee in such a manner as to uncover who might have committed the crime. If this seems a narrative stretch it hardly matters because of the film’s overall surrealist streak, one prominent in these interrogation sequences, distinctly evoked in the moments when Klára’s hair becomes noticeably frazzled, sort of a tonsorial emblem of the palpable tension permeating on account of the taboo questions and answer, a tension that feels ready to explode. Yet, as if sensing the topicality of questions surrounding romance in the workplace, the movie diffuses that tension, revealing these interrogations as a mere device to bring Endre and Mária together as the characters are made to realize that they are sharing the same dreams.

Those dreams are of them as deer in the woods, re-casting the meaning of these preceding sequences, and if at first these two unconventional lovebirds are keenly content to continue their atypical courtship in the dream state, it becomes obvious that their arc will involve having to wake up, ahem, to reality, though their real lives never feel that thought out, or as poetically rendered as the sequences involving those deer. Instead Endre is given a limp left arm as a means to connote how he no longer wishes to you know what, while Mária seems suspended in some sort of perpetual adolescence, still seeing a child psychiatrist and re-enacting events of the day with dolls, which was better illustrated, honestly, in “Spaceballs”, but which is never really explored in any detail beyond the surface, reducing her to an unfortunate pile of quirks.

Their romance climaxes with a conspicuously dispassionate sex scene, like two people who are just figuring out how this works, animal instincts taking over. And if the characters had fully come into their own, this might have played not merely as a corporeal exercise but an eruption of the soul.

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