Ildikó Enyedi displays the kind of sensitivity, in person, that mirrors that of the characters in her movie, On Body and Soul. An introverted love story between two unlikely characters, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival this year and might be one of 2017’s most compellingly quirky romance movies.
Endre, the middled-aged finance officer at an abattoir, meets Maria, a new quality inspector. Maria is shy, quiet and displays OCD-like behavior, while Endre is somewhat disabled due to a missing arm. Both have recurring and similar dreams in which they are both deers.
“I wanted to make a huge, mythical love story, with the least mythical heroes possible,” 61 year-old Enyedi told Asia Times.
On Body and Soul is the Hungarian filmmaker’s first feature film in 18 years, and marks her return to the festival circuit. She remains best known to the festival audience for her debut feature, 1989’s My Twentieth Century, which won the Camera D’or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Asked about the long gap between her previous film and On Body and Soul at a forum during the Hong Kong International Film Festival this year, she replied: “Money”.
“I don’t wish for anybody to experience what I experienced. Every single day, even on weekends, I was working on some project. I wrote, I pushed the projects forward and all of them, they were nearly financed, just nearly,” she said.
The idea for the film began as early as 10 years ago, Enyedi says.
“It was a beautiful day in March during spring. My heart was bursting with joy then, during a walk; you see the buds that are not open and you know tomorrow they will be. There were other people walking by and I saw their blank faces just as they saw mine,” she enthuses.
“I thought to myself, ‘oh my god, I really want to do a film about how people are just sitting and watching television, but inside of them is this much passion, struggle, fear and beauty in everyday life.’” She would go on to complete the script for On Body and Soul in one take, she adds.
“[But] then the whole Hungarian finance scene collapsed. For three years, there were no Hungarian films made.”
After many years of not making films, she then went on to work for HBO Europe, but eventually rebooted the project. The process “went very fluently and very quickly” thereafter, she said.
Being set in an abattoir, the film doesn’t shy away from what goes on there: early on, we see cattle being slaughtered. While this comes as a jolt after a dreamy opening scene of deers in a cascade of snow, Enyedi says the almost documentary-like depiction, presented in one minute-long take, is a re-joinder to the “absurdity” of the situation.
“There’s a very big emphasis (in the film) on showing the faces of the animals before they die. The scene is slowed down a little more than the speed it was filmed at,” she explains. “The animals would wait a day at the slaughterhouse before being killed, and when we were filming we could feel they (the animals) knew something was really very,very wrong, and that they were in a horrible place even though they were just standing there silently.”
The reality of consumers being divorced from the processes involved in producing what they eat is a message Enyedi hopes to bring home to her audience, besides the movie being a love story.
“It’s only after we really got into the relationship with the animals that we show the whole process (of killing); it’s not by chance that I wanted the audience to build a relationship with the animals first,” she explains. “If we can see what is happening, and how it is happening – we can make real choices. We can decide whether we continue to eat meat, and the decision is made with full knowledge (of the process).”
Not your ordinary love story
The soft-spoken director also reflected on the casting of the two leads. Alexandra Borbély, who works primarily in the Hungarian theatre, delivers a stand-out performance as the 20-something Maria. Géza Morcsányi, a first time actor, plays Endre, the male protagonist finds himself at a crossroads in choosing whether to venture into a relationship with Maria.
“They have vulnerabilities, which makes you, the audience, feel more brave in your own life when these people with some difficulties achieve something,” says Enyedi. “It makes it possible for us to feel it’s okay to step out of our self-defense, our comfort zone and the safety grid we built for ourselves.
“In the case of Maria, she’s going to going back to her childhood therapist because of this man, this love in her life. She has to go down to the basement to bring up an old childhood method and remake something which helped her in her childhood to understand the situation and to model that situation – because of love, because of this person.” Maria’s “method” is to use toys, such as lego, to understand herself better.
Borbély’s portrayal of Maria as a person with functioning autism is impressive, considering that Enyedi and her crew admit they did not do any practical research regarding the condition.
“Sometimes it’s better not to have very practical research but we were very open when working on the character of Marie. From the feedback from parents with autistic kids and psychologists, we got it right, but it was very important not to approach it clinically,” she says.
While the film was “built from very tiny, exact bricks” and “certain scenes were fixed” on how they should be filmed, she also gave room for the actors to interpret their roles, an approach which she thinks has paid dividends.
“The characters was very freely built by themselves, and I really trust their hidden, secret work. [It’s really] magic, what actors do, and I don’t interfere with that.”
As a woman working in a male-dominated industry, Enyedi believes that even with more female directors coming to the fore, they still struggle against prejudice.
“In my time, it was not a thing, women filmmakers. Film schools (in Hungary) don’t take in women,” she says. “But if you fought through getting past the door, then they sort of leave you alone.”
“But now – as there are more women filmmakers, and it’s slowly reaching a critical mass – young female filmmakers and young directors of photography get much more attacks on their ability. It’s surprising.”
Her views on the Hungarian film industry are upbeat, however.
“There are students from film schools attending film festivals, alongside experienced auteurs. There’s a wide variety of films, with filmmakers of different interests. There are blockbusters for the local audience, large films for larger audiences and auteur flicks,” she says. “The last time it was like this was in the 60s.”