A hell of title and a hell of a film, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is the remarkable second feature by writer/director Lili Horvát, who’s otherwise oddjobbed about the film biz in Hungary for some time – a casting director here, an actor there (you might have seen her in Kornél Mundruczó’s 2014 movie White God, a bizarre amalgam of the Disney kids movie with the post-apocalyptic wasteland drama).
With an influence of Claire Denis, Horvát conjures, also in “how is she doing that?” fashion, a complete dramatic universe set in a world of feeling and gesture, where facts as such are not as important as the emotions triggered by those facts. Whether feelings themselves are reliable is another consideration. When have feelings ever been reliable?
Not everything is certain, but what seems more or less agreed is that this film is all about a doctor called Márta, a Hungarian émigré who met a fellow Hungarian specialist at a conference in the US, fell instantly in love with him (and he with her, she thinks), and has now followed him back to Budapest, having thrown in her job and taken one several rungs lower back in the old country. As the film opens Márta is on the Szabadság híd, the Freedom Bridge, to keep her end of the bargain that they’d meet at the Pest end of the bridge one month after their first hook-up.
Janós (Viktor Bodó) doesn’t show. She tracks him down and confronts him. He denies that the two of them have ever met and goes on his way. Overwhelmed, Márta faints, and is helped back to her feet by handsome young medical student, Alex (Benett Vilmányi).
That’s what we know. Things we don’t know include Márta’s state of mind. She’s a woman approaching 40, she tells the shrink she’s seeing, and that means something. She works in a very high pressure job and has given it her all. She’s viewed with suspicion by her new colleagues, noses put out of joint by this incomer who worked in shiny techy hospitals in New Jersey. Maybe the patriarchy is getting her down too. “Oh god, women are so stupid, even the smart ones,” twinkles her old mentor, after working out that Márta is back in Budapest on account of a man.
Márta’s state of mind remains opaque. On the one hand we see her going to increasingly despairing lengths to track Janós – online and in the flesh. On the other Márta is a coolly skilled and competent surgeon and brilliant diagnostician (when it comes to medical problems, at least, a touch of physician heal thyself?) whose work is beyond reproach. She’s almost never seen out in full light, Horvát and DP Róbert Maly shooting her in shadows and murk, at night, in corners of underlit rooms, through doorways, reflected in windows. You get the feeling that if the camera could shoot around the corner, or through half-closed lids, it would.
Natasa Stork’s piercing blue eyes provide a cool counterpoint to all that half-light. They’re intelligent, flickering with thought, the single vivid point in a performance built on emotions withheld, everything tamped down and cut off.
Big emotions, small reactions, it’s what this film is all about. Stop go, yes no, advance retreat, Horvát paints a brilliant picture of a woman goaded mercilessly by her own emotions, while not reacting externally to them at all, and when medical student Alex starts to become interested in Márta, and Janós himself starts to respond and moves towards perhaps eventually explaining himself, she is nudged even further towards an emotional crisis.
What is the real story behind Janós’s declaration of love in the US? Is Alex a real guy or a fantasy too? Márta herself wonders if she’s made it all up, and careful editing (by Károly Szalai) reinforces the suggestion that Márta might be having a breakdown and is essentially playing the lead role in a one-handed love drama.
Preparations is not a love story, though it looks a bit like one (albeit a twisted one), it’s a film about a mood, the hazy line between obsessive love and madness. Towards the end Hórvat does a neat thing with the timeline, folding one part of it back on itself, to introduce an insecurity in the viewer similar to the one that Márta is experiencing, just in case we were getting cosy. Not being a “story”, it doesn’t quite know how to end, and its abruptness won’t satisfy everyone, as if Horvát has thrown her hands in the air to say “there you go, job done”.
It is very much done. What a fabulous film.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021