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Dreams End Up On The Slaughterhouse Floor In 'On Body And Soul'

In Ildikó Enyedi's film<em> On Body and Soul, </em>Maria (Alexandra Borbély) forms a strange connection with another employee at the slaughterhouse.
In Ildikó Enyedi's film<em> On Body and Soul, </em>Maria (Alexandra Borbély) forms a strange connection with another employee at the slaughterhouse.

They say that movies are the language of dreams, so what does it mean when a film's idea of dreamland is as dull and sterile as a linoleum floor? On Body and Soul,a Hungarian production premiering on Netflix Friday, February 2nd, is a romance of the imagination that leaves nothing to ours. Nevertheless, it has just enough sad, weird, Michel Gondry-like touches to snag both the Golden Bear at last year's Berlin Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. The latter nod is a sure sign that at least one branch of the Academy is still not as innovative and forward-thinking as it believes.

This is despite a premise for a romance that's strong enough to make one long for the sacrilegious American remake. Two strangers share a dream in which they appear in the same snowy forest, he as a stag, she a doe. The animals share a few chaste nuzzlings, some sprints through the woods, but no hardcore Animal Planet action. Yet it turns out their human counterparts work together, and once they discover their shared subconscious, they struggle to figure out if they can spend their waking moments together, too. Falling asleep over the phone is a nice touch.

A slaughterhouse isn't necessarily the most romantic setting one could imagine for a fanciful story like this, but such is life. And it's in keeping with writer-director Ildikó Enyedi's penchant for mixing whimsy with darkness, like oil in water. Enyedi has been on the Hungarian film scene for decades, since before the current wave of polarizing provocateurs like László Nemes (Son of Saul) and Kornél Mundruczó (White God), who revel in high-intensity images of violence and abuse. She sticks instead to the old-world arthouse model where you give the audience just a little bit of discomfort, but coat it in thick layers of production design and symbolism, as in her period revolutionary drama My Twentieth Century and mystical crime epics Magic Hunter and Simon, the Magician.

Here, that mixture translates to the older boss Endre (Géza Morcsányi) learning more about his pretty, blonde new quality assurance manager Maria (Alexandra Borbély) as cows are being bolted in place and gutted, their blood spilling down the killing floor drain. At least the movie has heart... and brains, and liver, and other internal organs.

So that's the body. What about the soul? It's not clear Maria has one. The character is a space cadet: in place of any recognizable human behavior, she's a grab-bag of oddities that seems meant to approximate a mental illness for sympathy. It's one thing that she hates to be touched, doesn't own a phone and possesses a savant-like memory; it's another that she reenacts scenes from her day at home using dolls and salt shakers, and continues to see a child psychologist well into adulthood. We're told Maria went to university, but we know nothing else of her past, and we're given no sort of emotional bridge to her internal conflict. In one scene, having been informed of the existence of music apparently for the first time, she gathers dozens of CDs at the record store and insists on listening to every single one while she stands in place at the checkout counter. She segues from heavy metal into dance-pop. The day gets late. She hasn't moved. The cashier, staring blankly ahead, should win an award for courage under fire.

Maria shows little interest in Endre at first, paying him less mind than the other slabs of meat under her jurisdiction. That changes once an investigation into a workplace theft of "mating powder" (don't ask) brings in a comely psychologist whose probing questions about dream behavior bring out a lot of uncomfortable truths among the workers. These middle segments are the most engaging, even though they don't make a whole lot of sense. The psychologist, Klára (Réka Tenki), gives an off-kilter aura and provokes weird behavior in her interviewees and herself. Sometimes Enyedi will cut to a close-up of her fiddling with part of her shirt or scratching her head, for no clear reason. What's going on here? Maybe going to work in a death factory every day builds a lot of pent-up sexual energy? Klára flees the film quickly, but not before opening a Pandora's box of animal behavior that the movie promptly loses interest in.

Instead (mild spoiler ahead), the climax announces itself by mirroring the animal blood from the first half, only this time it's human. There's clearly a point being made here, a high-minded juxtaposition of love, death, mating rituals and the qualities that both link and separate humans from animals ... but the plot mechanism that links these ideas and images is, we'll just say, grossly misjudged. Yes, it's hard to depict loneliness, true loneliness, in cinema. But it shouldn't be this hard to present lonely people worth caring about, regardless of what they're dreaming about.

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