On Body and Soul opens with the peaceful image of a stag and roe deer wandering through a snow-scattered forest. It’s not long, however, before the film moves to an abattoir, where cow carcasses are casually beheaded. Such an eye-opening clash of the serene and the grotesque is just one of the many oddities about Ildikó Enyedi’s beguiling, frustrating feature. It also gives you a hint of the ongoing tension of the title, of everyday reality meeting something more transcendent.
The story follows two lonely slaughterhouse workers, financial director Endre (Morcsányi Géza) and quality controller Mária (Alexandra Borbély) as they slowly connect with one another. The thing that brings them together is the revelation that they have been sharing the same dreams. As they process this mysterious psychosomatic link, the two socially awkward colleagues gradually overcome their emotional hang-ups and search for something deeper between them.
The film is at its best in its earliest stages, when this central relationship simmers with unspoken confusion and attraction, while the magical realism of the plot is nothing but a faint shimmer of xylophones in the background. Both characters are exquisitely observed, managing to be vulnerable and withdrawn without becoming caricatures of introverts. Enyedi drip-feeds information about the brutal world of the abattoir and about the inner lives of the Endre and Mária. It’s an engaging start, helped by two immensely sympathetic performances by Géza and Borbély. The latter in particular, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt, expresses the silent, almost unnoticeable pain of constant social ostracisation.
Had On Body and Soul maintained this enticing air of mystery and overtones of spirituality, it could have been an unmitigated treat. The gentleness and intimacy of the first act enchants, in part, because of its restraint and the way it stays true to the characters it creates. While this is mostly maintained through a slightly repetitive middle section, its delicate character observations unravel in a final third that indulges the audience with more familiar thrills like sex and violence. Where once the film took its sensual pleasure in a beam of light landing on skin, here it lurches into an excess that betrays the nerves and uncertainty of its central characters. It goes big on the body but misses out on the soul.