VOD Review: On Body and Soul.
A shared dream brings two vulnerable people together in this Oscar nominated love story.
I thought I was done watching Oscar nominated movies, but On Body and Soul snuck in at the last bell. This love story from Hungary (whose film industry has snagged two Oscars in as many years) treads a long and bumpy road, narratively, but winds up finding the mark in the end.
Covering the Academy Award nominated films for 5 years now, I usually despair of being able to talk about any of the smaller categories. Shorts.tv has helped by collecting the short film nominees, and streaming platforms are helping to make the documentaries and foreign language films more accessible. Last year, I caught only one film in each category by driving 3 hours to a small art-house theater. This year, there are three of the feature length documentaries on Netflix and one on Amazon, and both Hulu and Netflix each have one of the foreign language films. Streaming has pros and cons for the film industry, but access to films is definitely a shining benefit of the current model.
On Body and Soul (2017).
Endre and Maria work middle management jobs at a slaughterhouse. Endre has shut himself off from the world, creating an emotional barrier to prevent ridicule for his paralyzed right arm and his advanced age. Maria is living inside an imposed emotional barrier due to autism, and her inability to navigate social interactions have made her a pariah. Both escape into a vivid dream world where they roam freely as deer in a snow-covered forest. A chance accident reveals to them that they actually share the exact same dream, and this knowledge coaxes them into breaking their barriers.
Three Act Structure.
On Body and Soul feels a bit like three short movies that could stand on their own, but which build upon each other towards a final resolution. In the first, we see how our characters are distanced from society, by choice and by accident of birth. This opening stage hides the inner lives of the leads, making them forbidding or off-putting. It is only through the as-yet unexplained dream sequences that we sense their potential. This part is highly artistic and existential, feeling like an art-house flick.
The second act involves a drama at work where narcotics used on the cattle have been stolen, making the managers suspect. The absurdity of the drug taken (a mating formula for bulls) leads to a mini comedy of errors that is funny but also slightly threatening. Endre and Maria know that they share a dream, but the fog of suspicion and a potentially aggressive suitor named Sandor makes it seem that our shy leads might never explore their shared experience.
The third act is all about the faltering courtship between Endre and Maria. I was honestly dreading this, since the two characters didn’t have my sympathy yet. I feared that the movie was going to get painfully serious and and I didn’t have any emotional capital I was willing to spend on whether or not they end up together. Luckily, the film leans into the personal idiosyncrasies of the pair, both for humor and for pathos. You really see their inner lives and engage with them, and by the end I was as desperate as they were to see them open up to each other.
Let the Right One In.
Ildiko Enyedi (directing her first film in nearly twenty years) plays a dangerous game, since her two leads are emotionally inaccessible for most of the movie. This is a gamble that pays off in the third act, since Geza Morcsanyi (Endre) and Alexandra Borbely (Maria) do phenomenal jobs of bringing their characters to life. Endre is aloof and caustic, and you can see that he has learned to cut people off before they can hurt him. Maria internalizes everything around her and cannot react until she has processed it, like a computer on a time delay. These personae lead to a meaningful meditation on how people court each other. One is reluctant to put out signals, the other is unable to respond to signals in a timely manner. The entire third act could be blown up into a full length romantic comedy and it is easily the strongest part of the film.
I want to highlight Alexandra Borbely’s performance in particular, because she was amazing. You get much more of her internal struggle than Endre’s, which is fortunate since Borbely is hypnotic to watch. You can see such subtle emotional cues flicker across her character’s face, and it is paid off by a touching and funny performance by the actress. Maria has to retreat to her home or her therapist’s office (a child therapist, since she has refused to risk attachment to any other psychologist but the one she met as a child) to play-act her emotions before expressing them. You really get a deep appreciation of her struggle and personality, and the final arc has her become so emotionally poignant that I indulged the sin of pleading with the movie on her behalf at several points.
On Body and Soul was a film that I enjoyed until I hated it and then passionately loved it. The first two acts don’t ask a lot of you emotionally. They’re excellently structured and shot, with gorgeous cinematography during the dream sequences. As a story about the possibility of two people to acknowledge deeper purpose, it works. It was evocative, tense, and funny in places. I was happy to walk away before the final act. In fact, I was anxious to do so, since I smelled a love story coming on.
The final act made me uncomfortable. These two characters have defenses that keep people out, and I wanted to leave them alone. Being forced to watch them court was painful…but only because I had unknowingly become attached to them. I had some skin in the game. Enyedi pushes this advantage and then wisely spends a few lighthearted scenes letting you adjust. By the time the end came around, I was completely enamored of Endre and Maria and invested in their happiness. It’s skillful movie making and character development, and On Body and Soul is a masterclass in drawing an audience into the world of the film.