Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul (2017) is an exercise in counterpoint. From its opening sequences, the film unravels a series of contrasts: human/animal, freedom/captivity, pastoral/industrial, dream/reality, life/death. More formal than metaphysical, these contrasts mediate the film’s affective exploration of touch – its hesitations as well as its limit-points. The film begins with a stark-white image: the brief notes of the opening score fade out, plunging us into the tonal silence of a snow-covered forest. The quiet creates a certain pressure within the frame, directing our attention to the subtle movements of a stag and a doe. We watch as the stag slowly approaches the doe, gently resting his head over her neck. As if recoiling from his touch, the doe retreats. She moves off-frame; after a brief moment, the stag follows. The film cuts to the restless movement of a herd of cattle; bodies touching, they vie for space in the crowded pen. Our perspective aligned with one captive animal, we peer through the wooden slats of the pen towards a group of workers on their break. The cow then looks upward, orienting his body towards the sun. This small gesture opens out onto the film world. One-by-one, the characters turn to face the blinding sun. This moment of connection, with its almost cosmological overtones, is then brutally undercut as we find ourselves in a Hungarian abattoir, confronting scenes of slaughter.
Winner of the Golden Bear at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, and selected as Hungary’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, On Body and Soul marks Enyedi’s first feature in 18 years, and follows the path of her inimitable debut My 20th Century (1989). Counterpoint also structures this earlier film, which crosscuts between the diverging lives of separated twin sisters born in Budapest in 1880, exposing contradictory facets of the position of women within modernity. The cosmological overtones of On Body and Soul are made explicit here. Stars in the sky form a female chorus throughout the film, their overlapping, whispered voices providing commentary on the characters’ actions. While My 20th Century is shot through with the ethereal qualities of this celestial chorus and new electrical technologies, the world of On Body and Soul is similarly charged – this time with oneiric correspondences.
Set against the industrial backdrop of the abattoir, On Body and Soul traces the unfolding romance between Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the financial director, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), the new quality inspector. After the theft of a ‘mating powder’ from the abattoir’s medicine cabinet, a psychologist (Réka Tenki) conducts a series of interviews with employees to discern the culprit. The interviews reveal Endre and Mária have been sharing the same dream. One after the other, they narrate an encounter between a stag and doe in the forest, locating the film’s recurring imagery within their shared dream world. In this dream world, Endre and Mária are transmuted into stag and doe; we listen as they recall a brief touch of noses while drinking from a bubbling stream. This brush of contact draws the two together, bleeding into their waking reality. We watch as Endre and Mária visit this dream world night after night; the film crosscuts between the two, alone in their respective apartments. Slowly, brief exchanges at the abattoir become nighttime conversations. From its shimmering score to its use of ambient sound, the film’s sound design amplifies this slippage between dream and reality. Ambient sounds are often dislocated from the urban cityscape depicted on-screen, until a cut situates them within the forest’s quiet hum. At the same time, sound reinforces the counterpoint between the forest and the abattoir, as metallic clangs of machinery reverberate throughout the industrial space.
The increasing proximity between Endre and Mária proceeds haltingly, marked by hesitations and misunderstandings. Through repeated close-ups of Endre’s contorted hand, and explanatory scenes with Mária’s therapist, On Body and Soul draws a parallel between his physical disability and her aversion to physical contact: a characteristic, the film implies, of autism spectrum disorder. In a direct echo of the opening dream sequence, Mária recoils from Endre’s touch; an initial hesitation which forms a turning point in the film. A montage follows: Mária holding her hands against the reverberating speakers; reaching through the slats of the pen to stroke a cow’s back; lying down on the grass as the sprinklers turn on; touching herself with a stuffed puma. Yet, the film simultaneously withholds this proximity: close-ups on sensory details and singular gestures combine with the framing of Endre and Mária through partitions and reflective surfaces. Moreover, as the repetition of Laura Marling’s opening refrain in ‘What He Wrote’ reminds us, On Body and Soul sets the hesitations of touch between Endre and Mária against ruptures to bodily integrity (human and animal). From the mechanised slaughter at the abattoir, to the self-inflected violence of the protagonist, the film takes touch to its limit-point.
Early in the film, in frontal close-up, we witness the mechanised killing of an animal. The process is laid bare as the camera follows the initial restraint of the animal to the flaying and cutting of its carcass, suspended from an overhead rail. The camera later lingers on the blood pooling across the tile floor. The credits provide a disclaimer that while animals were harmed in the making of this film, none were harmed as a result of filming. The film only alludes to the ethical implications in this act of witnessing, from the fainting of a police officer to Endre’s interrogation of a prospective employee: “What do you think about these animals that we process here…don’t you feel sorry for them?” While My 20th Century explicitly frames scenes of animals in captivity in ethical terms (the escape of a dog hooked up to an electromagnetic apparatus; a chimpanzee at a zoo recounting the story of his entrapment), Enyedi’s latest film presents us with both the aestheticisation and the normalisation of this violence, turning its implications back onto the spectator. The film’s depiction of female suffering and self-inflected violence echo these earlier scenes at the abattoir, treading a fine line between formal affectivity and aestheticisation as exploitation. Ultimately, however, On Body and Soul presents an affecting, tender portrait of our search for contact against – and with – the violence we do to others and to ourselves.