Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul opens on a buck and a doe navigating through snowy woods, in a reverie that climaxes with the buck placing its head on the doe’s neck in a haunting gesture of kinship. As these pastoral images blend into bleak shots of cows being herded into a Hungarian slaughterhouse, Enyedi emphasizes the empathy and intelligence that the deer and cows each project, linking the animals together thematically. The cows are subsequently connected to the film’s human characters, as the metal fencing of the slaughterhouse’s pens visually rhymes with the offices of the company’s human resources department, which are composed of sterile glass and paneling that suggest cages. Though the cows have a far worse lot in life, they share a feeling of entrapment with their human captors. And though the deer seem to possess comparable freedom in a magically unpopulated woods, they appear to be stymied by human indecision and yearning. Collectively, the film’s opening scenes introduce a series of nesting associations that will unite a baroque medley of concepts.
At its center, On Body and Soul is another film that’s concerned with disabled people romantically completing each other—a trite fantasy that’s complicated by Enyedi’s crisp and chilly formal poetry, and by her absurdist rendering of the cruelty and camaraderie that drive the castes of the slaughterhouse. Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the company’s financial director, has a paralyzed arm that broadcasts his feelings of impotency. Once an accomplished cocksman, he now regards his attractive female co-workers with a contemptuous lustfulness that’s characteristic of sexually frustrated males. This slaughterhouse certainly isn’t hip to the #MeToo movement, as the men ogle the women with an open rapaciousness that might shame Roger Sterling.
Enyedi underscores another parallel between the film’s humans and livestock, then, as the humans objectify one another in the same manner that they do the cows on the chopping block, in each case prizing meat over individual agency. This equivocation isn’t new to discussions of gender roles, though Enyedi doesn’t indict men alone. Women are also shown getting off on the workplace tensions existing between the genders, pertaining to sex as well as power, while finding ways to politically benefit from them. One elderly female character, Zsóka (Itala Békés), misses the attention of men, describing an erotic dream with a straightforward dignity that embarrasses the slaughterhouse’s younger and superficially confident laborers. Yet violence is understood to lurk underneath these tensions—a violence that’s the province of men. Endre lashes out at a psychotherapist, Klára (Réka Tenki), visiting the slaughterhouse, after she catches him ogling her mesh blouse and asks him to elaborate on his sexual insecurities, which are potentially linked to the theft of “mating powder” from the slaughterhouse’s labs.
This latent male violence is actualized by the brutal killing of a cow in the slaughterhouse. Enyedi lingers on the animal’s beautiful eyes as obscenely sanitized tools destroy it. The cow’s knockout blow isn’t shown, which lowers our guard for a much worse sight: the animal’s beheading by a long knife, performed by an employee who does this countless times a day. The cow’s blood splatters on the pristine white floor, and its body is unceremoniously pushed into another stage of an assembly line to be skinned and evaluated for fat content. By the end of the sequence, an adorable creature has been turned into a variety of coldly apprised products.
By the time that romance blooms between Endre and the slaughterhouse’s new safety inspector, Mária (Alexandra Borbély), Enyedi has fashioned a rich dystopian atmosphere out of a reality that people take for granted. Enyedi’s geometric images and flamboyant symbolism make the commonplace of the meat industry seem authentically horrible, while giving an idealized romance the gritty counterpoint it needs to take emotional flight. Like the various animals seen throughout the film, Endre and Mária are captives of the schisms of their society. Endre is ashamed of his arm, while Mária is an obsessive compulsive, probably somewhere on the autism spectrum, with an aversion to touch. Endre and Mária are united, however, by a supernatural flourish that suggests a transcendent inversion of Franz Kafka’s pitiless transformation tales. On Body and Soul’s fusion of romance, comedy, ultraviolence, and political commentary has the logic of a lucid dream. Enyedi mixes various genres with the flair and confidence of a gifted alchemist.