On Body and Soul, Hungary’s nominee for best foreign language film at the Oscars, is a challenging film to watch – long, mostly uneventful and pretty gloomy. The most compelling scene shows the female lead, Maria, sitting in a warm bath and cutting her wrist open with a shard of glass, then struggling out of the bath to answer her phone. She sits naked, still losing blood that gathers in a pool at her feet, listening on the phone as her hesitant suitor, Endre, tries to motivate himself to ask her to meet him. It is very powerful cinema, an almost unbearable build-up of tension – is she going to bleed to death? Is he going to save her, even though he doesn’t know she is in danger of dying? But it seems unlikely that Ildiko Enyedi’s film is destined for a huge box office in the US market.
As it happens, the other two European nominees in the foreign language category of this year’s Oscars (there are five nominees in total) are similarly downbeat. Loveless, from Russia, deals with a 12 year-old boy who runs away from home as his divorcing parents fight, neither wanting to take custody of their son. The Square, from Sweden, chronicles the downfall of a divorced museum curator after his cell phone is stolen. The other two nominees – The Insult, from Lebanon, and A Fantastic Woman, from Chile – both deal with social prejudice, but their characters are more empathetic and they end on more upbeat notes. Europe seems to be in a funk these days.
On Body and Soul is set in an abattoir – what better place! – where Endre, who runs the business, is attracted to the shy, socially maladjusted Maria, who is the new quality control inspector. They warily circle each other, neither able to really connect with the other. Their first date in an empty restaurant with a feckless and impertinent waiter sets the tone for their dysfunctional romance. But then they discover they share one thing in common – they are both dreaming of being deer in a snowy forest. The beautifully filmed scenes of these wild animals, untouched by humans, are contrasted by the director, Enyedi, with the very graphic scenes of cows brought into the abattoir, tied, slaughtered and beheaded amidst gouts of blood. Enyedi doesn’t hurry her characters - it takes all of the film’s two hours for Endre and Maria to finally become lovers, escaping the grim reality of their workaday world for some shared tenderness over breakfast. The cinematography is powerful – the narrative less so.