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Beguiling And Brutal, 'On Body And Soul' Centers On A Slaughterhouse Romance


This is FRESH AIR. "On Body And Soul" won the top prize at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and is nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category. It's the first feature in 18 years from the Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi, whose previous films include "My 20th Century" and "Simon The Magician." Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A slaughterhouse is a strange place to fall in love. But strangeness seems to be what the Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi is going for with her earthy yet ethereal romance "On Body And Soul." This mostly beguiling, intermittently brutal movie takes place at an abattoir on the outskirts of Budapest. And it doesn't shy away from the place's everyday horror - the ghastly metal instruments, the blood-slicked floors, the stunned cows calmly being shorn of their heads and limbs. If last year's "Okja" didn't turn you into a vegetarian, this latest Netflix title might just do the trick. Enyedi isn't afraid to get up close and clinical. But at the same time, she isn't bent on rubbing our noses in entrails and squalor either. She employs violence as a punctuation and a contrast, occasionally shaking the story out of its soothingly arty stupor.

As its title might suggest, "On Body And Soul" is founded on a number of striking contrasts - man versus woman, human versus animal, natural paradise versus industrial hell. The gorgeous opening sequence in which a stag and a doe slowly make their way through a wintry forest is about as far removed from a factory killing floor as you can imagine. The movie keeps returning to that scene. And before long, we realize that it is in fact a recurring dream, one shared by two lonely individuals who work at the slaughterhouse. Think of it as a metaphysical meet cute.

Endre, the company's financial director, is a fiftyish-looking man with a contorted hand, a grave manner and a vaguely implied history of pain and suffering. He is immediately smitten with Maria, a new quality inspector, but he's too reserved to make any overtures. Maria, meanwhile, is so withdrawn that she makes Endre look gregarious. Impervious to her co-workers' attempts at small talk, she goes about her job with a fastidious attention to detail and the razor-sharp memory of a computer.

When a strange crime is committed at the factory, the employees are subjected to a round of psychiatric evaluations. It is through these inquiries that Endre and Maria learn that they have been dreaming the same dreams - that he is, in fact, the stag and she is the doe. While the purpose of these visions will not be lost on anyone in the audience, Endre and Maria are in no hurry to figure out what it all means. They circle each other warily at first, wondering if they might be the victims of some elaborate prank. Eventually, Endre suggests that they sleep together - in the chaste sense - so they can dream alongside each other.

Endre is played by Geza Morcsanyi, a Hungarian playwright making his film acting debut. He's an imposingly grizzled presence, and he pairs nicely with Alexandra Borbely as the brittle, fragile Maria, whose role is at once the movie's most striking and its most artificial. She's an obsessive compulsive pixie dream girl.

Enyedi gets a lot of low-key comic mileage out of her two deadpan leads. And at times, the movie plays like one of Aki Kaurismaki's finished satires as filtered through the high-concept rom-com sensibility of Nora Ephron. That may sound like a winningly demented combination. But, if anything, I wish "On Body And Soul" were weirder or rather that its weirdness felt less calculated and more challenging.

At nearly two hours, the movie is as reticent and slow to reveal itself as its protagonists are. But it turns out to be more or less what you expect it to be, a tale of two damaged, socially awkward individuals forced to overcome a lot of hazily manufactured contrivance to find their way into each other's arms. I'm not surprised that it's been nominated for an Oscar by the Motion Picture Academy, an organization that loves its genteel crowd-pleasers in any language.

"On Body And Soul" is easy enough on the eyes and ears. But a better movie would have taken more daring aim at the heart and mind.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the LA Times.

On Monday's show, Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell describes her 17 brushes with death, including nearly being raped and killed, almost dying during labor, nearly drowning and contracting encephalitis as a child. She wrote her new memoir in part for her daughter who has a life-threatening immune disorder. We'll talk with Maggie O'Farrell. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.