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"This movie awakens their own emotions" – On Body and Soul on the way to the Oscars

Ildikó Enyedi’s sensitive love story, On Body and Soul, won a Golden Bear straight out of the gate, and now it is Hungary’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. We reviewed the path the film has taken so far, and also caught up with the director.

We managed to get hold of Ildikó Enyedi on the phone when she was ready to board a train from Cologne to Hamburg, on her way from one On Body and Soul premiere to the next. She is accompanying the film to as many places in Europe as possible, which is quite a task, as the distribution rights have been sold virtually everywhere on the continent, this week only the film premieres in Germany, England and Sweden. But the director’s voice doesn’t sound tired at all as she is speaking about how "I started from Vienna, and now, like on a bead of pearls, I am following along with the movie. It’s an intense pleasure to meet a totally different audience each night, and as each screening is followed by a Q&A, I get a direct impression of the audience".

The international career of On Body and Soul started in February at the Berlinale, where it won the Golden Bear for best film, the FIPRESCI prize, the prize of the ecumenical jury, and even the prize of the readers of the Berliner Morgenpost. When handing the award to Enyedi, this year’s jury president, the director Paul Verhoeven highlighted that the film tells the story of two people connecting, in a way that is not only masterful, but also compassionate. Or the way the world’s first Golden Bear-winning woman, director Márta Mészáros put it: "The beauty of Ildikó’s film is that she draws a comparison between the animals and the humans, and claims that humans love more cruelly than animals. I think this idea is what touched viewers."

 

In the movie two exceptionally withdrawn people (played by Alexandra Borbély and Géza Morcsányi) with communication difficulties get close to each other by a strange occurrence: in their dreams they are deers, roaming the wilderness together. When they realize they both keep having the same dream, they are forced to explore the possibility of forming a relationship in the waking world too. In an interview with Cineuropa, Ildikó Enyedi divulged that she wanted to express "how much passion is inside people, which is hidden. (…) Two people who dream the same thing expresses that we are united and we don’t speak about it and we don’t know. Everything in our life is very much about borders and controls. And in our dreams we get connected. (…) The dream offers a full life, a full experience, and it would be great to have it also when we are awake."

After the Berlinale On Body and Soul was sold for theatrical distribution not only in Europe, but all over the world, it was sold to China, Australia, Israel and Brasilia among other countries. It will only premiere in cinemas in the Far East in spring, but it was already screened at festivals in Jeonju in South-Korea and in Hong Kong, and Ildikó Enyedi felt that "it was as if I made the film especially for them. They treated it like a totally mainstream romantic movie, this love story fitted with their sensibilities perfectly, it was much more approachable for them".

On Body and Soul by Ildikó Enyedi

In contrast to the Asian audience, some North American critics had difficulty with making sense of the movie’s fairy tale-like quality, but On Body and Soul received rave reviews nevertheless. The film reminded IndieWire’s critic of Michel Gondry, who also tackles dreams often in his work, while the film’s special humor reminded The Hollywood Reporter’s reviewer of Aki Kaurismaki’s movies. He also highlighted Máté Herbai’s "lush" cinematography, which was praised in almost all of the reviews.

Many critics were troubled by the bloody slaughterhouse scenes, as they should have been: the director explains that she included them specifically with the intention of shedding light on our "everyday life full of hypocrisy. The easiest way to understand it is to show a slaughterhouse. We simply don’t want to face how the steak arrives to our table. We don’t want to know how our clothes and our iPhones are made. The slaughterhouse represents the fake blindness of European culture."

Almost all the reviews highlight the outstanding achievement of Morcsányi és Borbély, Variety’s critic praises "Borbély’s intelligent, melancholically understated performance", besides the "richness of the writer-director’s ideas", the "airy, generously lit camerawork" of Herbai, and Ádám Balázs’ score, that creates an "otherworldly" atmosphere. Screen Daily draws the conclusion that "the film’s most considerable achievement is to sustain its drama on a finely poised level of emotional intimacy, while sometimes hitting us with intense imagistic charges, not least the graphic slaughterhouse scenes at the start."

Géza Morcsányi and Alexandra Borbély in On Body and Soul

Since Berlin On Body and Soul collected the main prize from Sidney, it was screened at the most important North American film festival in Toronto, and, together with Kornél Mundruczó’s Jupiter’s Moon, it was nominated for the European Film Awards, which will be handed out on December 9th. Meanwhile it was also successful domestically: 80 thousand people have seen it since its premiere in March, and the Oscar submission committee decided that On Body and Soul would be Hungary’s submission for the best foreign language film race. It will be revealed in the middle of December whether the film was shortlisted for a nomination, and if it makes it to the top nine, then we can root for it to nab an Oscar nomination in the middle of January.

However Ildikó Enyedi already seems perfectly content. She tells me that "just last night a couple came up to me and told me that after having watched the movie, they felt even more in love with each other. This film is not about me showing the viewers something, rather it awakens their own experiences, their own emotions. A ton of personal experiences and repressed emotions come to the surface, and their questions are much more personal and spontaneous because of this. They experience the passion I wanted to convey viscerally. And this was exactly my intention: to have an emotional impact on the viewers instead of an intellectual one."

Even though On Body and Soul will keep traveling around the world, the director is already working on her next movie: she wants to adapt Milán Füst’s novel, The Story of My Wife – if everything goes according to her plans, she will start shooting next summer.

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