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When Whimsy Works

How two films by Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi—"My 20th Century" and "On Body and Soul"—use playfulness to examine human connection.
Ildikó Enyedi's On Body and Soul (2017) is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing from November 17 - December 17, 2017.
Sex and violence are probably considered to be the most hotly contested controversial topics in film, from the hand-wringing parent who worries about exposing their kids too soon to blood and gore to governmental censorship boards editing out onscreen kisses. This isn’t to say that extreme levels of gore and gratuitously hardcore sex don’t merit discussions (see anything from the New French Extremity genre to the perennially talked about Baise-Moi). But there is, however, another film “quality” that ignites ire and repulsion faster than a close-up of an exploding head or a cut-to of cunnilingus: whimsy.
Whimsy, that which is held to be quaint, playful, heartfelt and sweet, is often derided as superficial, saccharine. And, to be fair, it often is. Having been monopolized by the likes of the Hallmark channel, whimsy often comes down to emotional manipulation; nothing more than a Voight-Kampff test designed to see if you’re really human if you don’t shed a tear when Amélie finally gets her guy or when Will’s father turns into a fish to swim into the afterlife. (For what it’s worth, yes, I cried in both instances.)  
I’m not above a film that goes for the heartstrings, nor do I hold emotional distance as equating instant intellectualism. Indeed, reckoning with the profound depth of the human spirit is one of the greatest acts of that us homo sapiens can strive towards. Which is why whimsy contains such vast possibilities. Thinking about whimsy this way, then, doesn’t mean automatic superficiality or a shortcut to jump-starting the waterworks. Rather, it’s a way to examine why and when we feel, and earnestly. This prelude, or defense, of whimsy might be better understood through two works by the Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi, My 20th Century (1989) and On Body and Soul (2017). One of her earliest features and her latest, both use a playfulness—and most certainly are earnest—in their examination of the condition of human connection.  
Since she began making films in 1985, Enyedi has made a mere eight features. But it’s a body of work that has turned out to be a case study in quality over quantity: she’s won the Camera d’or at Cannes (My 20th Century), was nominated for the Golden Leopard (Simon mágus) and Golden Lion (Büvös vadász), and won the Golden Bear at Berlinale (On Body and Soul). this month we’re screening the first and the latter, they provide a nice double bill of when whimsy works.
In My 20th Century, Enyedi embarks on exploring a crucial moment in history—the invention of the electricity by Thomas Edison (Péter Andorai)—through the love lives (or, as it turns out, life) of two long lost sisters (both played by Dorota Segda). Born in Budapest (at the moment Edison’s first bulbs are illuminated in New Jersey), Lili and Dóra are eventually separated in a coin toss and are reunited years later on New Year’s Eve, 1899. Dora now makes her way in the world by using men to keep up her lavish lifestyle. Lili is a revolutionary, set on a suicide mission. Without somehow noting this vast difference between the sisters, a suave stranger, Z (Oleg Yankovsky), falls for the sensual Dóra one night only to run into Lili and later tries to pursue her. He eventually finds both of the women together in a house of mirrors, and chases the women or their reflections, or maybe a combination of both.  
As has been noted before, in My 20th Century Enyedi emphasizes the rapid modernization of the new century as destabilizing women’s role in society. Lili, an anarchist, is also an ardent feminist, attending suffragette lectures (hilariously led by a man who, in the end, doesn’t believe women should vote) and lecturing Z on the coming women’s revolution (“The time will come when mothers will make dynamite instead of making coffee.”) Though a serious subject to be sure, Enyedi approaches it with, yes, a whimsical tone achieved largely through aesthetic choices: she employs old-timey pinhole fades and a Greek chorus of talking stars. These formal choices make for a decidedly playful film, though one that’s never slight: it asks us to consider not just what happened in history but who it impacted and why. Enyedi inserts emotionality into the historical, eschewing the academic style of objective distance, suggesting, ultimately, this can’t ever be really be achieved.  
While On Body and Soul doesn’t use the same formal tools to evoke a state of whimsy, it nevertheless employs a similar tone. It traces the unlikely love story of Endre (Géza Morcsányi) and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), co-workers at a slaughterhouse (not the typical mileu of the amorous). When a bovine mating powder goes missing, a doctor is brought in to conduct mental evalutations of the workers and discovers Endre and Mária are having the same dream: tender scenes of two deer, perhaps who are in love, nuzzling the woods. These nightly reveries become the pair’s main source of communication, as Mária is unable to bond with others in the way that most people can. (She re-enacts and runs through her meetings with Endre with Playmobil figures; comical yes, but also fundamentally all too relatable regarding that state of desiring deep human connection.) 
When Endre decides that he can’t be with Mária after all, rebuffing her offer to spend the night, she stoically absorbs the information. She goes home. She cuts her wrist in the tub. (While listening to Laura Marling, a perfect score to this dramatic gesture.) Enyedi shoots this sequence with an almost clinically cold style—a choice that proves that soiticism is really nothing more than another form emotionality. This style evokes the character of Mária, who is described throughout the film as being odd and cold. But, as the tub scene proves, she doesn’t lack emotions, she just can’t express them in the way we’ve been condition to accept them. The only way Mária can let her feelings, her insides, out is literally. As she’s bleeding out in the tub, her phone rings. It’s Endre. She rushes to pick it up, wrist still bleeding, to hear him confess: “I feel like I’m going to die I love you so much.” It’s dramatic yes, but what love story isn’t?
Over breakfast the next morning, Endre and Mária both can’t recall their dream: it’s no longer needed, as their connection has materialized in the concrete world. The film fades from a shot of a frost covered pond, the same one their deer drank at, to white. Like My 20th Century, which also leaves us with a shot of water (in that case a river), the imagined interludes become a central metaphor for the film’s projects of trying, in some way, to communicate about the condition of love and how we grapple with its intangibility. If that takes a whimsy—a cute pinhole fade, a shot of a doe-eyed deer—it seems like a suitable price to pay for this noble endeavor.

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