Only the lonely: ‘The Shape of Water’ and ‘On Body and Soul’
On Body And Soul opens with a stunning vision: snow falling in a forest, everything blue and white apart from two deer walking among the tall, thin trees. The male deer approaches the female, and, after a few moments, places his neck over her back in what seems like an affectionate gesture. The female leaves the frame, and we stare for a few seconds at the male, standing alone, before the film’s title appears on screen.
This winter scene recurs through Ildikó Enyedi’s film, winner of the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlinale and in the running for the foreign language Oscar. It’s revealed to be a dream that comes, independently, to Endre (Géza Morcsányi), a loner with a withered arm who is the financial director of an abattoir, and to Maria (Alexandra Borbély), socially awkward, newly hired as the slaughterhouse’s quality inspector. What Endre and Maria do with this knowledge is a rebuke to the predictability of mainstream romantic comedy, but picking apart the film’s plot—an eccentric assemblage that includes graphic scenes of animal slaughter and the theft of “mating powder”—is unlikely to be useful beyond a point. One might, more easily, surrender to the precise visual beauty (cinematographer Máté Herbai repeatedly capturing Borbély’s clear-eyed gaze in reflective glass) and its gently magical realist tendencies.
An identical dream viewed by more than one person at a time is a way of describing cinema itself. A film with a similarly fantastical outlook at this year’s Oscars—which also begins with a dream full of portent—is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water. As different as they are in their storytelling, the two films could be in conversation with each other. Each features a pair of outsiders who, against the backdrop of a callous, cruel workplace, find each other under extraordinary circumstances. And, in an era when the big screen has been taken over by the formulaic and the low-risk, they’re both gloriously, inventively cinematic: one lush and scored end-to-end, the other spare and brittle.
In Del Toro’s film, a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, the romance is between a mute cleaner at a research facility (luminously played by Sally Hawkins) and a merman-like creature (Doug Jones) held captive by the military there. Because this is a big Hollywood production (and because Del Toro prefers broad allegories), what is left elliptical in On Body And Soul is underlined here. For instance, there’s no antagonist in Enyedi’s film, whereas in The Shape Of Water Michael Shannon plays a candy-popping maniac. The brutal tactics of this government agent are less interesting than the film identifying him as hopelessly all-American, from his impulsive purchase of a Cadillac after a sales spiel to telling his son, sans irony, that jet-packs will be a reality because “this is America”.
Both films have deep sympathy for the broken and the outlier: On Body And Soul has Endre’s dead arm and Maria’s possible autism, while the heroes in The Shape Of Water are a mute Hispanic woman, her best friends, a black woman and a gay artist, and a Communist in 1960s America. The two films are also united in their depiction of loneliness as a functioning (if undesired) lifestyle. Through repetition and attention to detail, it shows us the clockwork routines that the lonely construct and live by in order to keep their days full: alarms set, eggs boiled, time set aside for self-love. Each film builds up to the involvement of the partner in that routine. What’s the point of dreaming if you can’t tell anyone about it the next day?
The Shape Of Water is in theatres. On Body And Soul is on Netflix.
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