Involuntarily stoic and permanently immaculate, but with a diligent willingness to forge bonds with others around her, Mária (Alexandra Borbély) joins a slaughterhouse as the new quality inspector, a job perfect for her sharply focused aptitudes, and quickly catches the attention of fellow employees who find her emotionless demeanor off-putting.

Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the financial head of the company, who deals with his own unchangeable imperfection in the form of a motionless arm, is intrigued by Mária’s unfazed behavior. It’s via the faltering friendship between them that we enter the conscious surface of Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s Berlin Golden Bear-winning On Body and Soul.

This unconventionally romantic treasure of a movie, which is shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, transcends the physical world and follows its beautifully broken protagonists into their dreams, where their closeness deepens as they trot in a frozen landscape as two magnificent deer. In that ethereal kingdom, Mária’s lack of intimacy due to autism and Endre’s bodily disability evaporate and become non-existent. It’s a spiritually pure space where they can feel without shame or repercussions. Subtle in its elegant rendering of profound love through visual language, but mesmerizing in impact, On Body and Soul is an exquisite and ingenious return for Enyedi, whose last feature film appeared nearly two decades ago. Painted with unassuming warmth and compassion, this unsentimental double vision of a singular relationship is a smooth knockout. 

Presenting the film at AFI Fest in November whilst simultaneously campaigning for the Academy Awards, the radiant filmmaker spoke to MovieMaker about her humanly enchanting drama. Real animals, sounds from Budapest’s mountains, hyperrealist eeriness, an amateur actor, and a theater actress making her first major jump in front of the camera were the flesh and blood of On Body and Soul, already one of the very best films to open in the US in 2018.

Mária and Endre meet as deer in a dream forest. Image courtesy of Inforg-M&M Film

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Although you made several short films and worked in television, your last feature came out in 1999, 18 years ago. What was the reason for this long hiatus? Were you working on a different project or were you developing On Body and Soul?

Ildikó Enyedi (IE): Well, I had five projects, one I’ll really, really never give up and I hope to make it one day. It happens in the ’30s, actually in 1939 in New York. It was an American project with wonderful partners, Paul Giamatti was involved, but I just teamed with the wrong guys, not from the US, from elsewhere. It’s like a fox when it’s trapped. It chews down its leg to get free. It was always nearly happening, and when something nearly happens you can’t let it go, and after a while you start a new script that takes a year, so very quickly it was five years. Then I started to work for HBO Europe and that was really great. I never imagined that it would be so fulfilling to work for television. Then we started this film, On Body and Soul, in 2015, so time adds up very easily.

MM: Tell me about the framing and cinematic language of this film. There is a lot of ethereal beauty in each scene that exists between a dreamlike state and realism.

IE: When I write it’s quite visual, at the same time, I’m very thankful for our cinematographer, Máté Herbai. He lets me inside his territory and I let him inside my territory. First of all, we wanted to create a sort of frozen world, how an autistic person can perceive the world around her. For that, there were very simple things we did. For example, in Mária’s apartment we wanted to have lots of light, to have a large depth of field, to have something very similar to hyper realistic paintings where there is this eerie and uncanny feeling that comes from the fact that the air perspective is missing. The thickness of the air, the dust in it it’s often blurred in the distance, but in a hyper realistic painting everything is super sharp. You as a spectator don’t know what the problem is, you don’t even know if there is a problem, but you just don’t feel comfortable.

We went for these sort of very primary feelings and we didn’t want to make a stylistic statement of them. I admire my cinematographer, because that was the most delicate thing, not to make it stylistically big, because if it’s stylized it becomes preposterous, it becomes cheap, it becomes not communicative. It becomes so that the auteur starts to speak through the film, and I really didn’t want that. I wanted for all of us behind the scenes to fall into the background. Máté was recently in Poland for the Camerimage Film Festival. He was one of the 13 chosen ones, it’s a very important distinction and he is a very young guy.

MM: I know the animals are not CGI, as you have made it clear multiple times in Q&As and interviews, so what were the complications or advantages that using real animals brought to the overall production?

IE: [Laughs]. When we did the casting, it was a real casting process. For example, the female deer, the doe, if you look at her face, it’s very similar to Alexandra and now everybody says, “Oh Alexandra has a doe-like face,” but no, does are all very different. It wasn’t by chance. If you look at them and if you shoot them in a human way and not like if in the Discovery Channel you can realize that you can’t compare them with another one, each of them has a personality. We also did tiny tricks in the framing to make it feel more human, to make the audience connect to these animals rather like to humans. In a nature film, for example, if it was a fox or whatever animal, you can use five different ones, but not here, it was not possible. We even brought another doe on set in case the other one got tired, and after one day we knew it was impossible to change her, because the spectator would see the difference. For example, we did over the shoulder shots, which was not easy to do. We used two cameras very, very close to each other, not in distance but through different lenses. It meant that you could cut a scene the same way as with two human actors. To humans you can say, “Ok, now we get a wide shot, not we get a close-up, please repeat your lines.” You can’t ask an animal to do that, but this little trick with the two cameras somehow opened in the spectators that sort of logic, that sort of approach that we use for humans because everybody is a film linguist, even if unconsciously. Everybody knows when they see an over the shoulder shot that it means a conversation between two characters, and so on. There were many tiny details like these where Máté was a wonderful partner.

Géza Morcsányi was a well-known translator, professor, dramaturg, and publisher in Hungary before making his film debut in On Body and Soul.

MM: Tell me about the two actors: Alexandra Borbély and Géza Morcsányi. I understand they weren’t particularly experienced in front of a camera. How were they ideal for these emotionally nuanced roles?

IE: Géza who plays Endre, the leading man, he is a total amateur. Never even thought about acting before. Alexandra is a very well established theater actress, but this is her first major role in a feature film. For the male role, I really needed somebody with charisma and with a large personality. He had to have a secret that you want to go after once you’ve discovered it. He had to have a sense of humor and also a whole life on his face. In a way it was like with Hollywood stars, who function in a way where there has to be something in their personality, which has nothing to do with the acting part or it. Some wonderful theater actors never have such a presence. For her, it was clear that I couldn’t’ cast an amateur. If she were like Mária there is no way I would put her through this very brutal thing, which is shooting a movie. Alexandra and I spent one and half months together before the shooting. We just spent time together. I learned about her, and she tried to find Mária in herself because she is very different—very different. Sometimes we were just in an apartment and she would just walk around trying, through the movements, to find this woman within herself. Then when she really had it, she was able to transform into Mária, and on set I barely had to say anything to her. Because you know, if somebody is himself or herself you can’t be fake, with animals there is also no chance of them being fake or overacting.

MM: The soundscape in On Body and Soul is beautifully transcendental but never overbearing, it keeps us, as viewers, on that eye between the reality of the slaughterhouse and the dream sequences. There is one particular sound that rings throughout and that stays with you after the film is done. Tell me about its design and function.

IE: In that regard, again, I worked with a very talented, very young guy. In fact, all of my colleagues, it was not just that they had to use their talent, but they really had to understand very deeply what the whole film and what each moment is about. Somehow even sound, framing, and everything else, had very concrete dramaturgical functions. Here, it’s a very transparent sonic world, but it’s not by chance that we used certain things at certain moments. For example, Mária is living in a very high floor, so everybody is at a distance from her. There is just light, the wind, the birds, and the murmur of the town. I really wanted something that represented realistic city noises, but also something which means something else.

We did this in all the scenes that are not in the forest. It was not in the dream sequences, where we used realistic noises but each of them had to mean a tiny bit more. Again, it was about balancing on the very fine line of become something stylistic but not. For example, for that noise that you mentioned, this guy just went up the hills around Budapest, which is like a basin, and somehow he caught something which is real, but also means something beyond real, something more. In the forest, during the dream sequences, I really wanted to create a real world and real animals, not dreamlike animals because they are so gorgeous, these deer, and they are so metaphorical and used so much in mythology, so I really wanted to bring them down to the ground, to the earth and to watch them do very simple things. We spoke about the framing already, and it was the same thing for the atmosphere, for the surrounding sounds. In the dream sequences they had to be really real and nothing else.

The same sort of careful professionalism, but also working with the heart was there for props, for costumes, I could also talk a lot about how costumes had a dramaturgical function. Again, if they had been pushed a tiny bit further it would had become about style. For example, I really love Aki Kaurismäki’s films, but there you are always aware that there is a filmmaker behind it all and he speaks to you through these characters. So with these tiny choices in our case, if we had gone a bit farther we would have fallen into the abyss, we would have lost the film. All my colleagues were very sensitive partners in this.

Alexandra Borbély won the European Actress award at the European Film Awards for her performance in On Body and Soul.

MM: Were you worried about the depiction of gruesome images in the slaughterhouse: meat being cut and the presence of blood? Most people who eat meat never think about where it comes from, and in your film there is a subtle spirituality to the process that we seem to have forgotten.

IE: There is somehow a broken bridge. In earlier days, even in my childhood, it was different. I lived in a big town, in Budapest, but we bought a chicken alive for the weekend. Then, there was a lady in the house who would kill the chicken, and we knew what we were doing, and that’s a choice. Now we don’t know it anymore. Somehow this coexistence we’ve had with household animals for thousands and thousands of years is broken. I don’t want to say it was fair, but there was a sort of bridge between men and animals. This bridge is broken because it’s really horrifying how animals are treated during their lives.

At this slaughterhouse what I found really touching was how instinctively tender and respectful these workers were with the animals. That’s why we chose this slaughterhouse. The chief or the director of it, who was a self-made man, he was a butcher beforehand, carefully chooses the guys with whom he works and he also takes care of them and watches how they work. I saw how the boys spoke to the animals, whom spend 24 hours there before being killed, how they touch them and leaned on them with their whole bodies. There is a fraternity between them. It was a very humbling experience and it really made me think about prehistoric times or tribal times in the history of mankind when you went hunting, you went after the animal, you caught it, you killed it, you ate it, and then you sang for it. That sort of truth was there in the slaughterhouse more than outside.

We shot in there with two cameras and we told them not alter anything about their job, not to speed up, not to slow down, to work as they always work. We only changed the light temperature of the light tubes, but even the lighting was the same. I certainly wasn’t showing everything. For example, there is a moment when they cut the animal in two and this big belly blurts out. I didn’t show that. I really didn’t want to create disgust or horror, but rather to create the drama and to raise compassion for these beautiful animals. I think they have beautiful and very expressive faces.

MM: The stereotype that Eastern European cinema is dark and bleak doesn’t seem to apply to your films, particularly On Body and Soul, which is very luminous.

IE: I had to realize that this is absolutely not an unconscious choice. I’m just not part of that sort of gloomy Eastern European view of the world, which is an absolutely valid perspective, but somehow what interests me are always the larger aspects of life and also, in the same way, the simpler and more basic aspects of life. This is what interests me. About a year ago there was a volume published about Hungarian filmmakers and every director got a title and mine was: “The one who stays apart” [laughs]. I have to accept it, but it’s really not something that I specifically want. MM

On Body and Soul (Teströl és Lélekröl) is currently playing theatrically in Los Angeles and will be available on Netflix on February 2, 2018, courtesy of Inforg-M&M Film.