The mating practices of animals may seem mysterious to us, but those of our fellow humans can be just as unfathomable. That seems to be one of the main takeaways from Hungarian writer-director Ildiko Enyedi’s quirky, deadpan and sometimes rather brutal romantic dramedy On Body and Soul (Testrol es lelekrol), which premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival.

Enyedi put herself on the map with her 1989 debut My Twentieth Century, which won the Cannes Camera d’Or prize for first feature, and she maintains that movie’s mix of magical realist humor and stylized sensuality in this story of two lonely slaughterhouse employees who go to absurd lengths to fall into each other’s arms. A bit stretched at nearly two hours, with a second act that could definitely be tightened up, the story nonetheless finds its way to a solid ending straight out of the Nora Ephron playbook, albeit with a lot more blood and unpredictable behavior. Additional festival berths and a few Euro art house pickups are the likely route here.

The film begins with a beautifully shot sequence of a stag and doe wandering a snow-covered forest — a scene that we return to several times and which takes on increased meaning as the plot thickens, or rather unravels in some highly eccentric ways. After that poetic opening, we’re soon introduced to Endre (Geza Morcsanyi), the stoical financial director of a midsized abattoir on the outskirts of Budapest, and to Maria (Alexandra Borbely), a gorgeous new quality control inspector with some serious communication issues.

Endre is not much of a talker either, and though he clearly has the hots for Maria from the first time he sees her in the employee cafeteria, he can’t really express it. Maria, meanwhile, seems to be slightly on the spectrum and pathologically anal-retentive, which is perhaps a good thing if your job consists of grading slabs of meat, but not if you’re hoping to start a relationship.

The director takes these two idiosyncratic characters and tosses them into a story that jumps between their slow and somewhat painful courtship, gory details of slaughterhouse life and those earlier forest scenes, which we soon learn Endre and Maria are simultaneously dreaming about each night. Add to that a subplot involving a police investigation around a stolen vial of bovine aphrodisiac, and what you get is a rich and strange tale of thwarted sexuality that takes a tad too long to get to the point.

Building her narrative around a pair of deadpan performances that yield dashes of humor amid a deep sentiment of human longing, Enyedi can sometimes revel too much in her depictions of modern solitude — shots of Endre and Maria framed alone in windows or doorways, watching TV by themselves in empty apartments — without taking the theme much further. But she manages to introduce a few welcome surprises, especially in a late scene that goes from tragic to farcical in a few seconds (and that makes excellent use of a ballad by British folk singer Laura Marling), while constantly juxtaposing the follies of human behavior with observed animal life.

Lush cinematography by Mate Herbai uses identical frames to capture scenes in both worlds, as the similarities between the main characters, the pair of deer and the cows dutifully heading to their slaughter become increasingly apparent. In that sense, the title On Body and Soul encapsulates what Enyedi seems to be getting at, even if she didn’t necessarily need such a long running time to make her point: how the disparity between body and soul can hurt us (or kill them — would we eat animals so easily if we believed they had souls?), and how their fusion can make us whole again.

For his first screen appearance, Morcsanyi does a good job portraying Endre’s morose existence with the type of stolid, semi-humoristic turn that you often see in the movies of Aki Kaurismaki — the filmmaker who most comes to mind here. Relative newcomer Borbely (Swing), who has mostly made local comedies until now, tactfully reveals Maria’s many autistic tendencies and inability to cope with the outside world. The way that Enyedi keeps shooting her in close-up, with Maria’s wide eyes very much like that of the doe seen roaming the forest, perfectly conveys the temperament of a woman who faces other people like a deer caught in the headlights.

Production company: Inforg – M&M Film KFT
Cast: Alexandra Borbely, Geza Morcsanyi, Reka Tenki, Zoltan Schneider, Ervin Nagy
Director, screenwriter: Ildiko Enyedi
Producers: Monika Mecs, Andras Muhi, Erno Mesterhazy
Executive producer: Andras Muhi
Director of photography: Mate Herbai
Production designer: Imola Lang
Costume designer: Judit Sinkovics
Editor: Karoly Szalai
Composer: Adam Balazs
Casting directors: Irma Ascher, Zsofia Muhi

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Sales: Films Boutique

In Hungarian

116 minutes