March 7, 2018

The Year of Loving Improbably: “On Body and Soul” and “The Shape of Water”

By Stuart Mitchner

In one film the lovers are a mute cleaning woman and an aquatic creature in a top-secret government research facility in Baltimore; in the other, they’re a young, socially retarded quality control inspector and an aging financial director at a slaughterhouse in Budapest. In the first, the lovers communicate by sign language; in the second they dream the same dreams. Which plot is the more improbable? Put another way, which requires a more willing suspension of disbelief? That a lonely mute cleaning woman finds love with a humanoid amphibian god who glows in the dark or that an autistic meat inspector finds it with a man who has a withered arm? 

According to Box Office Mojo, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which won the 2018 Oscar for Best Picture Sunday, has grossed $126.4 million and counting; Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film, has grossed $2 million, having, at this writing, never played in an American cinema.

Talked Into It

My wife had to talk me into seeing On Body and Soul. When she told me it was set in a meat-packing plant, I said something cynical and dismissive to which she said, “It got good reviews and it’s free on Netflix. We could see it right now. It won the Golden Bear at Berlin. And something at Cannes.”

Still resisting, I looked the film up on IMDb, where I found that it was written and directed by Enyedi, whose last film to make a stir was My Twentieth Century (1989). The stars: those household names, Alexandra Borbély and Géza Morcsányi (or, since last names come first, in Hungary, Borbély Alexandra and Morcsányi Géza). Borbély had won Best Actress at the European Film Awards. Anyway, it was free. We could always turn it off and watch something on FilmStruck.

Doe Meets Stag

On Body and Soul opens with an encounter between a stag and a doe in a snowy forest. The stag rubs its chin on the doe’s back. The brilliantly shot sequence is just there, no apparent rhyme or reason, nothing to do with the grim business of the abattoir, beyond the obvious contrast of animal-in-the-wild with animal-in-captivity being processed for human consumption. Borbély plays Mária, an ethereally lovely but pathologically introverted, casebook-frigid misfit with a scarily exact memory for details who inspects dead animal carcasses, presumably because objectifying such things is one of the upsides of her disability. Morcsányi plays Endre, the plant’s grizzled, aging financial director whose disability, a “crippled arm,” Mária tactlessly points out when he introduces himself in the workers’ cafeteria. She’s behaving clinically in character, as “precise” in interpersonal relations as she is when she gives a B grade to carcasses that ordinary inspectors would grade as A.

So what could happen between these two? He’s in his 50s, she’s at least 20 years younger; he’s been through Cole Porter’s “mill of love,” all of it behind him and he’s glad; she’s never even begun; for her, love is another planet, intimate physical contact light years away except for formal moments, as when he comes over to her table in the cafeteria the first time and she stands to attention and stiffly holds out her hand. So far the only hint of something beyond the routine is the cloud-dimmed sun whose light Endre bathes his face in, eyes closed; when he looks down from the window, he sees the sunlight reaching Mária at the same moment; she’s standing alone in the muted radiance; then, as if aware of his gaze, she steps back into the shadows of a doorway.

The Awakening

After more sequences with the stag and the doe that still have no apparent relation to the slaughterhouse assembly line or anything else, there’s a crisis at the plant. Someone has been stealing the mating powder, the aphrodisiac of choice for breeding cattle! A psychologist is brought in to interview anyone who had access to the supply, and one of the questions she asks is, “Tell me what you dreamt last night.” Endre tells her he dreamed he was a deer in a field. Were you alone? No. There was another deer. Did you mate? No — “our noses touched when we drank from the stream, that’s all.”

When Mária answers the question by describing the same dream, the audience comes to attention, and the psychologist suspects a prank, thinking the two have conspired and are putting her on. So she calls them both in and plays back their recorded answers as they sit there, listening, together. While the man is understandably startled and intrigued, the girl experiences a stunning revelation. Mária’s expression at this moment is unforgettable; up to now, she’s been growing on us, beautiful in the depth of her detachment, like a fairy princess trapped in an enchantment; now this radiant awakening, as if all the wonder she never knew, all the possibilities on the other side of her illness, have been brought to life. It would be a challenge for any actress to convincingly convey what’s happening, the surfacing of a suppressed self; in only her second film, this young actress brings it off and keeps bringing it off as she tries to navigate a new dimension of existence.

Learning how to live in the scary-beautiful new world she’s just glimpsed, Mária becomes a student in the elementary education of touching and feeling. Shyly stepping around sunbathing couples in a public park, she stares down at a girl being passionately kissed who becomes aware of her gaze and rather than turning away makes eye contact as if somehow sympathetically aware of her plight. Later, Mária’s alone in the middle of the field, lying in the fading sunlight, rubbing blades of grass between her fingers, touching, feeling, when an array of sprinklers comes on, showering her from all sides: she sits up startled, then glorying in the impact of the water, surprised by mindless joy, fully smiling for the first time in the film.

Elisa and the Creature

I saw The Shape of Water Sunday at the Garden. The contrast of a super-powered Hollywood production to the small-scale of Body and Soul may have affected my response to del Toro’s wonderful if overlong fantasy, which the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane calls “a horror-monster-musical-jailbreak-period-spy-romance.” While del Toro’s cine-matic mastery won him a Best Director Oscar, the glory of the film is Sally Hawkins’s Elisa Esposito. As Lane points out, “none of this would cohere, as an imaginative escapade” without her. She plays the mute with passionate, silent-movie genius. Her force is such that half the time you seem to be hearing the pounding of her heart, as in the hair-raising intensity of the scene where the only way she can express the depth of her feeling for the creature (Doug Jones) and the impending threat to his existence is to pummel her gay friend and apartment mate nicely played by Richard Jenkins.

I enthused here about Sally Hawkins at Oscar time almost ten years ago when her performance as the indefatigable life-force Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky was ignored by the Academy. After winning 14 Best Actress honors, including a Golden Globe and the New York, London, and San Francisco Film Critics awards, she didn’t even rate a nomination in tinsel town. At least she got that much this year. Having seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and The Shape of Water in that order in a two-day period, I can’t argue with Frances McDormand’s Best Actress Oscar. If you’ve already admired her in the outstanding mini series Olive Kitteridge, you know what she can do. But the same could be said of Hawkins. In my March 11, 2009 review of Happy-Go-Lucky, I mention her edgy nocturnal encounter with a dangerously troubled derelict in which “the zany, mischievous, wisecracking” character who has been “alternately amusing you and testing your patience” hears the man bellowing “to no one and nothing,” and instead of avoiding the danger, she confronts it head-on, “face to face, eye to eye, trying to understand or at least make the man know that someone cares enough to make the effort.” Fast forward to the cleaning woman and the creature and you see the same actress taking on and sublimely mastering a far more challenging situation. McDormand’s performance has depth and passion. Hawkins’s has depth, passion, and magic.

One problem I had with del Toro’s film, in addition to the heavyhanded business with Michael Shannon’s manic villain (a brilliant performance even so) and related over-the-top action sequences, was Alexandre Desplat’s intrusive (and Oscar-winning) score. The most effective music in The Shape of Water inspires fantastical sequences in which Elisa plays records and dances her way into a dream world of old Hollywood musicals. Music is also one of the mediums through which Mária finds her way in On Body and Soul. After listening to stacks of CDs in a record store looking for “love music,” she takes home the sales clerk’s favorite, Laura Marling’s “What He Wrote,” which accompanies the denouement of a unique love story.

At the moment, the only way to see Ildikó Enyedi’s extraordinary film is on Netflix or DVD, once it’s available. According to the Hollywood Reporter, this is “the first time in memory that a foreign-language film of this quality has not had even a token moviehouse playdate.”

Is it possible that Princeton’s Garden could give On Body and Soul its first American showing? I hope so.