On Body and Soul.

On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről) is one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the tenth time a Hungarian submission has made the final cut since they began submitting films in 1965. A film that alternates shockingly brutal imagery with a lyrical, otherworldly story about two of the shyest people you could imagine, the movie is a starmaking performance for actress Alexandra Borbély, who won the Best European Actress award in 2017 for her work here. It’s exclusively available on Netflix.

Borbély plays Maria, the new health inspector at a Hungarian cattle slaughterhouse, replacing the unseen Bori, who left early for maternity leave and appears by implication to have been a fairly lenient inspector. Maria is shy, lacks the ability to read social cues, and often seems emotionless to the workers at the facility, who make halfhearted attempts to connect with her. The factory’s CFO, Endre (Géza Morcsányi, a playwright in his first film role), is also shy and awkward, a well-meaning man who has lost the use of his left arm and keeps most of his colleagues at arm’s length. We realize before they do that the two of them are sharing the same dreams night after night, where each is a deer in a snowy forest, a fact that only becomes apparent to them when a theft at the factory leads to psychiatric interviews with all of the possible culprits. The discovery changes both of them, driving Maria to try to figure out how to relate to another person, while Endre rediscovers the sense of empathy he seems to have lost through years of disappointment.

Director/writer Ildikó Enyedi is unafraid to jar the audience with images of cattle being chained, killed, and bled, although many of these images have parallels to the strange journey of Maria and Endre, especially Maria. She has many aspects of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome or who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, although her condition is never named; these facets of her personality include extreme organization and cleanliness, which makes her perfect for her job … as long as she doesn’t have to interact with other people. Borbély, who had some TV experience and just three or four previous film roles, is marvelous in every way in this role, giving Maria both the affect-less expressions and intonations of a person who can’t read social cues or sense emotions in others, as well as the innocence, trepidation, and wonder of a child seeing or experiencing things for the first time. The role requires her to walk a tight rope to avoid Rain Man-like caricature without giving Maria too much emotion or sensibility, as if a relationship could ‘cure’ her. Even when the story hits its dramatic climax near the end, Borbély does not veer outside the character’s boundaries, reacting at one point in a matter-of-fact way to something awful that it became a darkly humorous moment instead.

Enyedi’s script offers a meditation on loneliness, especially for people who were, perhaps, not made for this world, like Maria, or who have grown tired of its letdowns, like Endre. Even with this utterly improbable link between them, the two find it difficult to communicate with or understand each other, and that disconnect threatens to leave them lonelier than they were before they discovered their shared experience. The script does lose steam a little in the final quarter of the film, because the setup is so strong – two people with no apparent connection are simultaneously dreaming the same dream, in an otherwise rational world where such a thing should be impossible. Resolving that story in an interesting way, other than simply having Maria fall into Endre’s arms, is difficult, and Enyedi gets it about halfway right. The big twist is also a bit predictable, and yet honest at the same time, because one character’s reaction to pull away from the other is understandable in the context of the film. I thought this would end up happening, but I also couldn’t tell you a more realistic resolution, either.

On Body and Soul won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, as did Spirited Away, A Separation, and the 2016 documentary Fire at Sea; like A Separation, it also took the Grand prize at the Sydney Film Festival, so in theory it should have a reasonable chance at the Oscar. Instead, the betting site GoldDerby gives it the worst odds of the five nominees, with A Fantastic Woman considered the favorite – although neither that nor Loveless has played anywhere but New York or Los Angeles so far. Having seen four of the five Best Actress nominees, however, I will say Borbély more than deserved a nomination – it’s not unheard of, with Isabelle Huppert getting a nod for the French-language film Elle just last year – and I’d vote for her over both Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan.

The Square.

I imagine Sweden’s national tourism board is rather unhappy with the country’s portrayal in The Square, as writer-director Ruben Östlund has crafted a dense, multilayered, nonlinear, unfocused narrative that depicts Stockholm’s art community as a bunch of loonies. It’s fascinating, even gripping, frequently cringeworthy, twice offensive, too long by about ten minutes, and incisively satirical. Östlund doesn’t land all his punches, but the ones he lands hit hard. The film is mostly in Swedish, with subtitles; it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and is Sweden’s submission for the 90th Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film honor.

Claes Bang plays Christian, the director of a modern art museum in Stockholm that tries to present edgy, post-modern installations, but often falls short of its own pretensions, a fact established and skewered in an early scene where American journalist Anne (Elizabeth Moss) asks him to explain a description from the museum’s official site. Christian is also dealing with an outside marketing agency to develop advertising for an upcoming installation, called The Square, that is just a lit square on the ground and a plaque explaining what the square is in vague philosophical terms – not exactly the most media-friendly piece of art. Christian is also robbed of his wallet and phone in an early scene, leading to a comically disastrous plan to recover the goods when his tech guy, Michael (Christopher Læssø), helps him locate the phone via GPS tracking.

Other plot threads and details appear late in the film, enough that mentioning them would spoil the effect even though they’re not plot twists – they’re just stuff the script forgot to mention earlier on in the proceedings. That gives the entire film a sense of unreality, which I’d compare favorably to the hysterical realism of Zadie Smith or Paul Beatty, and unfavorably to the failed experimental novel The Unconsoled, which also concerned an artist, by Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s narrative makes sharp, jarring turns that lack narrative or thematic connections, and subplots are dropped without resolution, never to return. It’s unclear if the main character is even awake for some scenes, or dreaming, or hallucinating. The Square walks a similarly tortuous path, with more clarity that it’s all (probably) real, instead simply bouncing Christian from bad decision to bad decision, and introducing details – like the end of the performance art piece at the banquet, or the whole thing with Anne’s roommate – that are just never explained. This is hysterical realism bordering on the transgressive, with mixed results, but still earning high points for ambition.

Christian himself is part narcissist – to the extent that someone can be only partly narcissistic – and part idiot, calling to mind Sherman McCoy of The Bonfire of the Vanities, another antihero who does something incredibly stupid, only to have it come back around and ruin his life. McCoy had it coming, while Christian isn’t quite so loathsome, just governed too much by his instinct for self-preservation and a little too in love with the power of his position. He gets small chances for redemption near the end of the film, and largely takes them, although it can’t thoroughly rehabilitate his character or atone for the wrongs he’s done some other people (a la Ian McEwan’s Atonement).

The targets of this film’s satirical side are numerous, from the art world, especially modern art, to consumer culture to our willful ignorance of others’ suffering to the anachronisms of the upper class to sex, the last rather thoroughly demonstrated by one of the most joyless sex scenes I can remember seeing. The movie’s pièce de résistance, the aforementioned performance art scene at a banquet for the museum’s chief benefactors, manages to tear down multiple targets, including the fatuous nature of such self-congratulatory dinners, the idea of the artist being ‘totally’ committed to his work to the point of madness, the animal nature of man, and the bystander effect, the last two coming in the scene’s culmination of a physical and attempted sexual assault. Again, after the scene ends, there isn’t so much as another reference to any of it – it’s yet another disaster for the museum, but everyone proceeds the next day as if it never happened.

The Square is bursting with ideas, and many of them fail to hit their marks or are pushed via metaphors that are just too strong or on the nose. The modern art mockery is fish in a barrel stuff – really, that could have been one of the museum’s installations. The simian allusions are similarly too easy. But then there are scenes like the overhead shot of Christian rifling through garbage where the camera is high enough that his white shirt and brown hair just look like two more bags in the sea of trash, or the spiraling shot of a staircase (also top-down) as Christian climbs multiple floors but appears to make no progress.

No idea comes across more consistently in the film, however, than our numbness to the suffering of strangers, even when it’s right in front of us. Banquet goers put their heads down even as there’s a physical attack happening in front of them. Commuters ignore beggars in the street, the mall, the train station, and ignore the charity worker asking people if they’d stop for a minute “to save a life.” The video produced by the marketing agency, which is an obvious disaster along the lines of the SB Nation puff piece on rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, turns the idea inside out by preying on people’s sympathy for a fictional character crafted to maximize the viewers’ emotional reactions. It’s the one truly pervasive theme in the movie, and the closest thing the script has to a unifying element.

For all of that weightiness, The Square is also very funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes more “I can’t believe this is happening” funny, but even with its bleak view of humanity, the movie does go for some big laughs. There’s a fight over a condom, an argument interrupted by an art installation that keeps making noise at inopportune moments, another installation damaged in comical fashion by a night cleaner, and the sheer idiocy of the marketing agency bros. At nearly two and a half hours, it needs some levity to keep it moving – and many scenes in the first half go on a few beats too long – but the film will likely keep everyone who sees it thinking about all of its ideas for days.

But seriously, what is the deal with Anne’s roommate?