Cinematic romance is often remembered for grand gestures. A passionate kiss in the rain, a last-gasp chase at the airport, a profound declaration of love. But there are others like “In Mood for Love” which take a more restrained approach. Ildikó Enyedi’s “On Body and Soul” falls into the latter camp, telling a unique story that portrays love on a mystical level.
As with many other romance films, “On Body and Soul” brings together an unlikely pair of characters. Middle-aged Endre (Géza Morcsányi) is the director of a slaughterhouse, where he maintains a relaxed atmosphere among his staff. The new quality inspector, however (the young and beautiful Maria, played by Alexandra Borbély) threatens to change the workplace dynamic. A withdrawn woman who pays close attention to detail, she causes tension among her co-workers. One day, however, an investigation into a theft reveals a strange connection between Endre and Maria. Through interviews, they learn that they share the same dreams, meeting as deer in a snow-covered forest. As time goes by, these two lonely hearts gradually begin to wonder whether their dreams signify a love written in the stars.
Ordinarily, this fantastical premise would lead down more sentimental paths. But Enyedi employs a more austere vision that is at once stark and elegant. The gruesome nature of the slaughterhouse business is presented uncensored, as blood smears the floors and walls from butchered cattle. Meanwhile, the dream sequences are as serene and lovely as can be.
The human love story, on the other hand, is slightly more impenetrable. When the story turns towards our tentative protagonists, their relationship is defined less by increasing familiarity than their own personal growth. In particular, Maria’s character undergoes a profound transformation which provides the film with its most challenging enigma. Delicately portrayed by Alexandre Borbely, Maria has the mindset of a child undergoing a sexual awakening of sorts. Furthermore, severe traumas in her past are suggested through her therapy sessions and her inability to engage in physical contact.
Unfortunately, the script remains frustratingly opaque about her backstory, requiring Borbély to fill in the blanks with her performance. Thankfully, she is more than capable of delivering. Impressively steely at first, she slowly chips away to display Maria’s inner fragility.
Ultimately, “On Body and Soul” is arguably too cerebral to fully resonate as a romance. But if you are able to get on its wavelength, there’s something enchanting in its inexplicable love affair. Romance films are so often formulaic that it’s nice to see one with a certain “je ne sais quoi.”
“On Body and Soul” releases on Netflix Feb. 2.