On Body and Soul opens to a stag and doe wandering in a snowy forest to the slow, meditative sound of wind chimes and cowbells. The stag sniffs the doe cautiously and then tenderly rests his head on her back for a few seconds before she canters away, leaving the stag looking forlorn. Edited in a way that anthropomorphises the animals’ interactions, this is a beautifully composed scene reminiscent of later David Attenborough documentaries. Before the viewer can roll their eyes at the prospect of sitting through a saccharine arthouse film bogged down with heavy-handed visual metaphors, On Body and Soul neatly subverts those expectations by weaving these scenes into its bizarre and compelling premise.
Mária (Alexandra Borbély) arrives at an industrial beef slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Budapest to begin work as the new quality inspector and immediately piques the interest of the facility’s much older CFO, Endre (Géza Morcsányi). She appears to be on the autism spectrum and alienates her co-workers with her shyness and eccentric behavior. Sensing a kindred damaged spirit, Endre is drawn to Mária, though initially he receives no greater regard than the meat she inspects. When a jar of powder, used to induce mating in the livestock (and humans), goes missing from a medicine cabinet, a psychologist is tasked to conduct interviews with each of the staff as part of a police investigation to unmask the sex-crazed culprit. When Endre and Mária are separately psychometrically assessed, it is discovered that they share the exact same dream each night, of a stag and a doe in a snowy forest and interacting as a loving couple. Endre and Mária hesitantly accept the intimacy experienced in this dream, but as the superficially mismatched pair draws closer they struggle to overcome deep-seated psychological issues.
In conceiving On Body and Soul, writer and director Ildikó Enyedi’s aim was ‘to show an overwhelming, passionate love story in the least passionate and overwhelming way’. With her first feature film in eighteen years, the Hungarian auteur has done so by crafting a thoughtful, quirky, poetic character study of two broken people, laced with dark humour throughout.