Like its central relationship, ‘On Body and Soul’ missteps at a crucial moment

There are few things that “On Body and Soul,” Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s first feature in 18 years, does wrong. Some things are overemphasized and some moments play out too long, but they’re easy to dismiss because where they lead is worth the wait. No, it’s only at a crucial moment in the story that the movie missteps, and while it doesn’t ruin the experience, it doesn’t add anything. The journey, not the end, is the point of this movie, so when its climax falls flat, it’s a good thing everything before and after is so strong.

ff320.jpgIn its enigmatic opening, a stag and doe meet in winter, touching noses and feeling each other out before the screen cuts to black. It turns out this is a dream, and the stag is Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the aging financial director of a meat processing plant, and the doe is Mária (Alexandra Borbély), the new quality assurance supervisor at the plant. After “mating powder” is stolen from the medical wing, the police investigate and, through interviews with a psychologist, the two discover they’ve been sharing this dream. The question their left with is can they connect in the real world like they connect in the dream?
The answer is tough. Endre has given up on relationships and Mária is on the autism spectrum, likely with obsessive compulsive disorder. She rehearses conversations with toys and, after, recites them verbatim with salt and pepper shakers. She needs to practice interaction and, especially, how to be comfortable connecting on a deeper level. Borbély’s performance is as tender as Morcsányi’s is stoic, and their chemistry makes the movie. The movie is patient with them as they’re connection waxes and wanes, but only up to a point.

In the last thirty minutes, Enyedi tires of waiting and brings them together with unnecessarily dire emotional stakes. Spoiler alert: after a particularly harsh rejection, Mária takes action with a glass shard, attempting suicide in her bathtub before Endre calls her to go back on his words. She jury-rigs a cast and gets treated at the hospital. Everything is fine from thereon. While she is ostracized because of how she behaves, there’s little narrative build-up to her attempt, a moment where she chooses life with Endre over a lonely death. It feels so important, but it also feels abrupt.

Thankfully, “On Body and Soul” finds its footing again soon after. Enyedi doesn’t dwell on that moment in part because she doesn’t have time to, but it’s also not worth dwelling on. It draws a visual parallel between Endre’s crippled arm and Mária’s scarred one, leading to one of the movie’s more arresting images, but that’s it. Without it, “On Body and Soul” would have been a leaner experience. Even with it, though, it’s a poignant fable about the things our loved ones can teach us about ourselves. Watching it is a fragile experience. With who our protagonists are, their connection could break at any moment. How they build it in the waking world is something else entirely.