The words “I’ll see you in my dreams” get an eerie, affecting new spin in “On Body and Soul,” a determinedly eccentric but intermittently startling misfit romance that marks a singular return to feature filmmaking for Hungarian writer-director Ildikó Enyedi after an 18-year gap. Charting the very slow-burning attraction between two lonely abattoir workers who simply cannot connect in the real world as intimately as they do in the dreams they mysteriously share, Enyedi’s film blends mournfully poetic whimsy with stabs of visceral brute reality: Suffice to say the slaughterhouse setting doesn’t go unexploited. If these dueling registers neatly reflect the body and soul elements of the title, the contrast between them is more formally bracing than it is emotionally illuminating. Over the course of nearly two hours, meanwhile, the film’s strange, flyaway storytelling style does lose some of its mojo.
Enyedi remains best known to film audiences for her 1989 debut feature, the lyrical estranged-twins drama “My Twentieth Century,” which earned her international distribution and the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Though the helmer has kept active in television and documentary since completing her last feature, “Simon the Magician,” in 1999, “On Body and Soul” will be warmly embraced as a comeback project by global festival programmers, following its Competition premiere in Berlin.
It’s be a tougher sell, however, to international distributors — unless some vegan evangelicals in the market are seeking films to convert audiences to their cause. The film attacks viewers early on with what is surely the cinema’s most stomach-inverting scene of abattoir action since fellow Hungarian outlier “White God” three years ago: Máté Herbai’s camera observes with head-on, crystal-clear impassivity as a cow is yoked, stunned, beheaded, and industrially carved, dark blood spurting and pooling like prune juice. (“Some animals were harmed during filming, but none of them for the sake of this film,” the closing credits note diplomatically.) Audiences will be divided on the merits of this shock documentary maneuver in what is otherwise a film of gentle fragility, though it does illustrate one polar extreme in a story concerned with human cruelty and empathy at a range of levels.
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It certainly comes as a harsh chaser to the more serene animal imagery that opens the film: An exquisite, snow-flecked forest tableau worthy of a Christmas card, where a majestic male and female deer sweetly nuzzle each other in the cold. It’s a vision that recurs throughout the uglier, urban-set proceedings, and it takes some time before Enyedi reveals its meaning: It is quite literally a recurring dream, one experienced nightly by both Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the abattoir’s mild-mannered financial director, and Maria (Alexandra Borbély), its cripplingly shy, OCD-afflicted new quality inspector.
Endre is immediately drawn to the evasive, enigmatic newcomer, who mostly rebuffs his tentative advances in a cold panic. But when a company psychiatrist (a fine Réka Tenki) discovers through a series of staff evaluations that Endre and Maria are having exactly the same dreams, the colleagues are compelled to consider the uncanny bond between them. Do they cosmically meet in slumber, in antlered form to boot? And if so, does this demand something more of their awkward relationship in the waking world? Is it possible to politely remain solitary strangers in real life while at night turning into (with apologies to Bobby Darin) dream lovers, so they don’t have to dream alone?
These are heady, teasing dramatic questions that Enyedi’s alternately elegant and abstruse approach only partially untangles, as her film morphs from a wistful, cerebral what-if proposition to a black-edged romantic comedy to, climactically, a life-or-death melodrama. These tonal variations are at least held in check by consistently pristine filmmaking: Herbai’s airy, generously lit camerawork resists the expected visual impulse to delve into shadow when dealing with the recesses of the unconscious, while the tingling, echoing wind notes of Ádám Balázs’ score lend an otherworldly air to the characters’ stranger wanderings.
Still, “On Body and Soul” isn’t equally convincing in all its registers. The last third, in particular, saps some of the goodwill engendered by the beguiling premise as Maria escalates from nervy introvert to full-scale manic-depressive pixie dream girl — with a repeated, rather literal application of neo-folk singer Laura Marling’s “What He Wrote” (“I’m broken too… left me alone when I needed the light”) coloring in her inner life. It’s to the credit of Borbély’s intelligent, melancholically understated performance that Maria remains sympathetic even as she becomes more of a condition than a character — and to the richness of the writer-director’s ideas that they move and intrigue even when they’re most artificially expounded.