Interview: Ildiko Enyedi
Almost thirty years ago, Ildiko Enyedi made a splash with her twinned picaresque My Twentieth Century, featured in New Directors / New Films and recently released on Blu-ray by Second Run. Doubling and the eternal conundrum of connecting have recurred in her work since then, and after several years in television, she returns to the theme in On Body and Soul. Shot in a mix of bold and cool primary colors and given the air and pace of an autumnal forest clearing, it is an off-kilter story of attraction between a reserved slaughterhouse inspector, Maria (Alexandra Borbély), and loner manager, Endre (Morcsányi Géza). They meet, quite literally, in their dreams. With its sentimental streak lent an ever so slight mesmeric tinge by the precise design and Maria’s reserve, the film has met approval of every stripe: a Golden Bear last year at Berlin, followed by an Academy Award nomination this year, not to mention acquisition by Netflix. I spoke with Enyedi about a month before its screening on February 26 in Film Comment Selects; since then, it was announced that she will write and direct The Story of My Wife starring Léa Seydoux. No word on another project she told me about…
What was the inspiration for this film?
It all started from a very basic feeling. It was very early spring, the beginning of March. It was cold, yes, but you could feel the promise of spring in the air. These moments—your heart wants to burst with all the feelings and possibilities of a new beginning. You walk down the street, and you see people walking beside you with blank faces, and you know very well that they feel the same. What they see is also just a blank face. I thought, “Oh, that would be great to make a film about—how much is underneath the surface, how much we have that we cannot share with each other.”
Somehow it was a very quick, several week-long writing period—to tell the truth, the easiest writing I’ve ever done. The same day, I had these two characters, and I swear I don’t have any idea how this idea of the shared dreams came. I just wanted to put them in a situation that they can’t ignore, where they are really forced to do something about it and not continue their life as it was beforehand. I just really followed them and wrote down what they were doing.
It’s a beautiful idea that they have these dreams that are private but also shared with each other. It’s sort of what people always wonder about love—if the other person has the same feeling, or in this case, the same dream.
Sometimes, after writing, you question your choices, you question if your decisions were right, if there were better choices thematically. You try to understand why you wrote certain things. I barely changed the script, which is also unusual because I used to rewrite, many times. Without regret, I just throw things out. I realized that somehow the whole project spoke about a very elementary feeling I had, years ago, when I read Jung. Compared to Freud’s approach, which is about the individual and the individual’s past, Jung puts the accent on the common unconscious. Whether we want to or not, we share it with everybody around the globe. When you are sleeping, when you are dreaming, you don’t have a choice. You just very, very directly reach out to this level of your whatever—your soul, let’s say. So, somehow, it seems that your dreams are only yours, and very personal, and they are. But at the same time these are the moments when you really reach out to everybody else. You touch a ground that you can touch in daylight very rarely, that you share with everybody. It’s not about the difference, it’s about what is common.
That’s especially important for someone like Maria because she sometimes has trouble communicating or connecting, and you can feel her trying to interpret everything around her constantly. It must be exhausting for her. But this way, she has a way to connect with someone.
Yes, yes. Exactly.
Where did this character of Maria come from?
To tell you the truth, I didn’t construct these two characters. They appeared in front of me, ready. Very rich characters. I had the feeling that I knew a lot about them. For sure, there is a lot in Maria which is me. I really learned a bit the same way that she learned. For example, after the birth of my children, I learned to swim, I learned to bicycle, just to be able to have them, to be with them. Somehow I made a much larger life. I dared to be much more present in nature, in the world around me, than in my own childhood. I was an only child, just reading at home.
I was maybe a bit like that at times…
There are some of us in the world. And for Endre, somehow I had as much empathy for him as well. I saw it happen to so many powerful, wonderful, brilliant men: when they get weaker, when they get older and more vulnerable, the people around them start to, not take revenge, but start to push them down. I always had a very clear image of Endre. I saw it once in Spain—it’s a bull in the corrida, already covered with dust, the neck is bleeding with the picas, and the eyes are blurred already, but it’s very alert and tries to stand up, and somehow tries to die with dignity. This is what Endre gives out. He says, “Okay, I make a fool of myself. This is more important. I just want to be alive, risky as it is.” For Maria, it’s very risky because it’s such an unknown territory. But for Endre, it’s a big risk because he knows very, very well how dangerous love can be, how much it can hurt, how much it can humiliate you.
It also reminds you of your being in a body, those urges and desires. That’s also why the movie’s setting is really potent, because they both work at this place where they’re surrounded by these animal bodies. And with the title, On Body and Soul, you’re reminding us of how we’re all flesh in some way. Maria and Endre are really still getting in touch, or back into touch, with that aspect of themselves.
Yes, yes, and somehow these are not two entities, one beside the other. They are somehow the interference of the two. At least, that was my intention when I show the slaughterhouse and I show these beautiful, expressive faces of these animals, these cows and bulls. When we see these bodies, it’s about the soul. The accent isn’t on the killing, it’s on the fact that this very complex being is dying. For example, I didn’t show certain moments of the slaughtering—when you cut a cow in two, then this big, big belly bursts out. It would just have the effect of horror and disgust. This is not what I wanted. I wanted to make clear the drama, rather, and the empathy about them.
Somehow, when Maria opens up, opens her soul toward another person, she’s doing it through bodily experiences—learning to touch, to accept touching, just to feel the grass on the tips of her fingers, to feel the power of the sunlight on her skin. The opening up of her soul goes through bodily experiences.
In a way, the aesthetics of the film also allows the viewer to feel that, because of the careful way you choose the colors and the particular shades, and also the tempo. There’s a certain peace to the film’s editing, this gradual andante quality. Could you talk about the editing, how you paced the movie?
I’m very happy that you think about that. The timing was so crucial. It had its own dramaturgical function. For example, at the end of the film, it was so important for me not to speed up, not to slow down, not to make it dramatic, that the events would happen with a relentless, equal pace, that she’s going home, she washes the dishes, she gathers the clothes from the balcony… So, not to help the moment with any of the tools of an author, because then you can take the moment more seriously. I had a really, really wonderful partner, the editor [Károly Szalai] with whom I worked, but I must say that everybody on the team was very much focused on every detail because they understood so deeply, and so exactly, that every little detail—even the color of a shirt—is important for the whole film. And not in the sense that we want to create a style, but that every visual element and every sonic element had a very concrete connection to the meaning of the film.
I noticed the motif of having a bit of red in every other scene that your eye is drawn to. It lets you compose each frame in a particular way.
Yes. We wanted this, but the trickiest thing was not to make it too visible, because then instead of these two people, the author would step out and would speak directly to the audience. I didn’t want this. So that was the trickiest thing to do with all of my colleagues, to have all these choices, very careful choices, but if it was just a tiny bit more evident, more visible, it would have ruined the film. I really wanted to step back. We all who made the film wanted to step back, and let the film itself communicate with the audience. Sometimes it’s really just nuances which decide if it becomes an author’s gesture or not.
Could you talk a bit about the two main actors, and how you chose them for these roles?
For Endre, I wanted to find somebody who is an attractive man, but already beaten by time, for whom this sort of risk to reenter the arena is really big. If you have a 40-year-old guy, you say, “Okay, this love, it didn’t happen, there will be a next one.” But for him, it should be a real challenge. “Should I step back in one more time and risk myself or not?” I know all of the actors of that age in Hungary, and there are some great ones, but I knew that I didn’t have what I was looking for. So from the start I was looking for an amateur. So he’s an amateur. I never made any casting sessions with anybody else. I just was happy that he accepted.
Had he done theater before, or anything?
Nothing at all. He is the director of the biggest literary publishing house in Hungary. Completely different background. And a shy person. He was extremely focused. It’s not easy to get used to 12 hours of work. I’m very thankful for him. And Alexandra—who, by the way, I’m so happy she won the award of Best European Actress at the EFAs—this is her first major role in film. She’s a well-known and strong theater actress, and she’s a very, very different character. We worked together at least a month and a half together, just to find Maria in her. It was amazing to see really what an actor can do, to transform, to metamorphose into somebody else. I had a very, very long casting session, at least five months, with actresses who were very talented, and very strong actresses, but nobody could do what she could. To tell the truth, I couldn’t explain what it was that I was looking for. Just a few months ago, during a Q&A, I realized that what she was able to do is to be vulnerable and powerful in the same moment. Not vulnerable, then strong, but at the same time.
She does so much wonderful work just with her eyes.
Yes. It’s because as soon as she found this Maria in herself on set, I barely had to tell her anything, because she was not trying, she was Maria.
Do you know this film Wanda, by Barbara Loden? There are a couple of shots where she looks a lot like her.
Really? Wanda? I will check it out. I’m hunting for good movies.
It’s a great one. I also thought about Japanese films, a bit, when I watched this. The story of two people trying to understand their solitude, and maybe change their situation.
You know, the funny thing is that the film is extremely—not just well-received, but very exactly understood in East Asia, in China, Korea, Japan. All the screenings, all the Q&As, everything was shockingly as if I made it for them. Like in Hong Kong. There was just one single reference I told to my DP, and it was not a visual reference: it’s In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar Wai. I told him that we should have the same effect of really nothing on the surface, but what is underneath is the passion, the danger, the longing, and so on. That we should make this contrast as much as possible, but with very different visual tools. I was so happy to meet Wong Kar Wai in Hong Kong! He loved the film.
Speaking of festivals and awards, I saw that your cinematographer Máté Herbai was just nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers in the festival category.
He won the Golden Frog at Camerimage. He’s a young guy and he was so shocked. I’m very happy for him.
Can I ask if you’re writing anything now, or working on a new project?
Yes, actually I’m working on two projects. One is in preparation, but who knows what will happen. You can never know before the first shooting day. And I have another one where the script is half-ready. This one is really close to my heart. The title is Silent Friend. It will be a German film, and the main character is a tree.