TIFF Review: 'On Body and Soul'

On Body and Soul
(Hungary, 116 min.)
Written and directed by Ildikó Enyedi
Starring: Alexandra Borbély, Géza Morcsányi, Réka Tenki
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (North American Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
If a deer is your spirit animal, then On Body and Soul is the film for you. A pair of deer, one doe and one stag, steal the show from their human co-stars in this peculiar meditation on life and love. Pardon the pun, but it’s a film worth fawning over.

Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul is like a dream. Don’t sleep on this lyrical and profound Hungarian drama that imagines the endless possibilities of love. A worthy winner for the Golden Bear at Berlin earlier this year and Hungary’s official submission in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film, On Body and Soul creeps up and floors you with its deep, strange embrace.

This delicate two-hander stars Alexandra Borbély as Maria, a reserved and sedate quality inspector at a slaughterhouse, and Géza Morcsányi as Endre, the house’s financial director. They’re an odd couple from their first encounter since Maria’s obsessive-compulsive disorder and standoffishness clashes with his forward manner. Love isn’t exactly in the air in this factory drenched with the blood and souls of bovines.

Lovers wake, however, when the pair experiences the same dream. Maria and Ender share profound joy and euphoria while becoming deer in their subconscious and having better luck with love as non-human animals. The pair begins to talk about their dreams and a warm, romantic bond forges as they become intimate by sleeping together, in a sense, without physical contact.

Enyedi crafts a magical dream world that soothes the soul as Maria and Ender become deer while they sleep. The performances of the deer, which are completely natural and don’t have any hints of CGI, need to be seen to be believed. These scenes are images of spine-tingling serenity as the deer frolic in the snowy woods. Their physical contact and intimacy don’t try to aspire to anthropomorphosis; rather, the deer offer an escape. Away from fear, self-awareness, and vulnerability, the deer can simply let love run wild.

These snowy dreamscapes contrast with the sterile slaughterhouse and the characters’ demure apartments. On the other hand, there’s a nice symmetry to the performances by the human and non-human actors. The doe-eyed Borbély is withdrawn and skittish, while Morcsányi’s forward performance embraces the buck within. The film has a very droll sense of humour, too, that plays very well off the actors’ straight-laced performances, particularly Borbély’s poised and composed turn that consistently suppresses a smile.

Buoyed by the effective use of Laura Marling’s “What HeWrote” in its final act to contrast with the frequent silence and minimalist score, On Body and Soul simmers towards the full-realization of true love as the performances and aesthetics blossom, coming fully to life in the final scenes. It took 17 years for Enyedi to deliver On Body and Soul after her previous film. Let’s hope the next one comes a little sooner.

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