Wednesday, July 28, 2021

On Body and Soul (Teströl és lélekröl)


Director Ildikó Enyedi

Actress Alexandra Borbély

The director (center) with her primary cast




















ON BODY AND SOUL (Teströl és lélekröl)                        C+                                               Hungary  (116 mi)  2017  d: Ildikó Enyedi

A film that falls into the Yorgos Lanthimos The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) syndrome, overhyped and overpraised from the arthouse circuit, yet dreadfully disappointing when actually viewed, never living up to expectations, preposterous in parts, overly contrived and graphically cruel, intentionally making sure explicit scenes of raw and unedited violence are seen, including actual slaughterhouse scenes of sheer brutality, including blood-soaked and mechanized decapitation, where a crudely simplistic Hungarian romance or love story turns into a nefarious medical experiment gone wrong, yet somehow it wins the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, while also winning the FIPRESCI Prize and the Ecumenical Jury Prize, and becoming Hungary’s official nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film category, actually making the cut into the final five.  Largely overshadowed by other headline-grabbing films, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) (2017), the ultimate winner, allowing a trans actress to play a trans character onscreen, the pretentiously overwrought exercise in audience manipulation in Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017), winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes, and Andrei Zvyagintzev’s mesmerizing  2018 Top Ten List #4 Loveless (Nelyubov) (2017), an indictment of corruption and an all-out assault on the state of tyranny in Russia.  The director’s first film in 18 years, eloquently shot by Máté Herbai, it devises its own logical constraints, remaining low-key and distant throughout, immersed in its own state of aloofness, creating a dreamlike atmosphere that has its own spectacular life under the surface, showing a male stag and a female doe linked together in complete natural harmony in a wintry forest covered with snow, where an expression of natural purity stands in stark contrast to the penned animals being butchered in the slaughterhouse and the mundane ennui we see taking place on the surface.  That’s at least an interesting set-up, because Hungary has such a rich tradition of folk tales, but it’s the setting that’s disturbing, a local slaughterhouse, where there’s a blasé indifference to the animals, even in the way its filmed, as there is meticulous detail shown in the gruesome aspects of the job.  The workers aren’t an enlightened group, lacking individuality, followers of systematic routine, poking fun at anyone who’s different, even showing outright contempt, revealing a cruel prejudice to their everyday existence, which may simply reflect ordinary working class views.  What stands out is the casual air of indifference, as they’re simply not bothered by what they do and never question how they think, as there’s an ingrained perception of narrow-minded conformity that defines who they are collectively as a society, a disturbing normality that might actually help explain how Hungarians so easily became Nazi sympathizers. 

As if in response to this character flaw, the story centers upon two damaged characters, neither one of whom falls into the category of typical movie leads, as they simply defy classification.  Endre (Géza Morcsányi, in real-life the director of the biggest literary publishing house in Hungary) is the older financial director of a Budapest slaughterhouse, exuding melancholy or sadness, partially disabled by a crippled arm, while Mária (Alexandra Borbély) is the new quality control inspector, young, blond, and attractive, yet painfully shy and socially inept, naïve and childishly innocent, averse to all physical contact, yet with a photographic memory, showing signs of autism, teased relentlessly by the workers (and laughed at by audiences, unfortunately), as she refuses to socialize with them.  Not only are they both introverts, they are wounded souls who may never heal from their obvious deficiencies, routinely seen alone at home, where they are each defined by their relentless loneliness.  Countering that impression is Sanyi (Ervin Nagy, Borbély’s real-life partner), an overly macho new hire who brags about feeling at ease with killing animals, showing no remorse whatsoever, which he thinks is a needed skill for the job, though Endre thinks that could actually present a problem.  His biggest friend and confident is the overly anxious head of Human Relations, Jenő (Zoltán Schneider), whose oversexed wife (Zsuzsa Járó) has seemingly slept with every man at the plant (including Endre), always giving excuses for coming home late, basically inversing the power dynamic in their marriage, as Jenő is forced to do the shopping and look after the kids.  One particular early scene stands out, with Endre in his office, becoming distracted, looking out the window where he sees Mária standing below avoiding the others, situated behind a pillar, avoiding the sunlight, receding into the shadows, where she just happens to look up and see Endre looking at her, causing her to retreat even further.  A scandalous incident occurs, requiring a police call, as a small quantity of mating powder has been stolen from the premises, where low level police corruption is the norm, as choice cuts of meat are immediately handed over to the investigating officer, bringing in a police psychiatrist Klára (Réka Tenki) to interview the entire staff, asking extremely personal questions, hoping to get to the bottom of it.  In a riff on sexual stereotypes, she turns out to be extremely sensuous, shapely and attractive, catching everyone off-guard with the candor of her questions, which are sexually obsessed.  Thinking they are playing a joke on her, she brings in both Mária and Endre after their initial interviews, as they are each having the exact same dream about two deer frolicking around a small lake in the woods, quickly discarding their testimony as blatantly falsified, yet the two of them are stunned to realize such an amazing coincidence.    

What follows is a shared secret that only grows in significance, as each continues to have identical dreams about each other in deer form, never really leading to copulation, just a sense of undisputed closeness.  It’s an awkward situation that plagues each of them, growing even more apparent in social settings that are repeated throughout the film, where Mária is always alone, never eating lunch with anyone, preferring to be by herself, yet suddenly the two are having lunch together, often seen through glass windows, revealing odd or refracted reflections, drawing eyes from everyone else, though he’s old enough to be her father.  Their initial interest is more surprise than anything else, as a morose sadness pervades an overwhelming emptiness in their lives, yet the exotic richness of their dreams gives them life, growing serious, taking an interest in the peculiarly developing inner life that connects them both, not really knowing what to do with it, feeling estranged from their own feelings.  In an amusing twist, Mária transfers actual conversations with Endre into role playing sessions at home, acted out with salt and pepper shakers or Lego dolls, assuming both roles, but exaggerating the male voice inflections, like creating her own cartoon universe.  Mária revisits her child therapist (Tamás Jordán), feeling comfortable speaking to him, not really interested in pursuing matters further with an adult psychiatrist, but certainly her curiosity is piqued, acting out in strange ways, blurting out things she would never ordinarily say.  Their lives are filled with heightened moments, expressing an intensity they’ve never really experienced before, remaining distant and apart, yet consumed by the other in a mythically developing subconscious relationship taking place entirely below the surface.  Very few films actually confront autism head-on, where patients have difficulty identifying and understanding what other people feel, yet they don’t dismiss what they fail to understand, they are simply stymied by it.  The animal dream sequences, mixed together with slaughterhouse images, comprise the first half, where the two worlds collide, creating obvious friction, with the dreams adding a rare delicacy to what we experience, but that’s less emphasized later in the film, as the two attempt to navigate something resembling an actual relationship, becoming more conventional, bridging the gulf of desperate loneliness, but Mária keeps hitting a wall, unnerved by what she can’t understand.  When her therapist suggests music as a way to “feel” outside her private reserve, the first selection she chooses is hard corps death metal music, yet she doesn’t even flinch, showing no emotion whatsoever, yet it’s a starkly humorous contrast.  When a record store clerk suggests something she prefers, more of a defiantly sad love song that veers into forbidden fruit territory, it leads her into a strange, new world, Laura Marling - What He Wrote / OST Testről és lélekről (Music video) YouTube (4:08), spiraling into a danger zone of horrors, where all appears lost, before miraculously being thrust out of the doldrums and into the light, as confoundingly weird as could possibly be imagined, where the convergence from mythical to reality is utterly preposterous.  This is a film where shock value passes for drama, showing little interest in building and sustaining emotional tension, becoming completely one-sided as Mária is clinically objectified, dissected, and examined like a specimen under a microscope, requiring a Kafkaesque metamorphosis.  Not for the faint of heart, or anyone who takes autism seriously, as this is more of a clinical fairy tale. 

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