Review: ‘Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time’ (2020, dir. Lili Horvát)

by Igor Fishman

Judging by its title, Hungary’s submission for the Oscars may sound mechanical and stiff, but director Lili Horvát’s second feature is anything but. To watch it is to crawl under a blanket of disorienting sumptuousness — it is all tone and feeling, haze and dread, threaded with an undercurrent of romance. A neurosurgeon flies to Budapest to be with the man of her dreams, but he doesn’t recognize her. What follows is a mysterious tone poem draped on a Hitchcockian hook and accompanied by a pervasive unease keeping things off-kilter even as you watch the pieces align. Horvát pulls at the threads that delineate love from infatuation, desire, and need, and through this process, she constructs an intimate portrait of a woman who stands on the precipice of change and navigates a maze of obligations to build a new life for herself. 

We open on an epigraph of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (I think I made you up inside my head.)” This pointedly sets the stage for the solipsism and ambiguity that course their way through the narrative; ideas which cinematographer Róbert Maly crystallizes onto lush 35mm. The frame alternates from dreamland exteriors, a plane wing sifting through cotton-candy cloud cover, to extreme close-ups of our protagonist Márta (Natasa Stork), the steely blues of her irises piercing through the screen. These two modes dominate the film, the poetic outer shell, and the sobering alienation of reality. The fantastical inner worlds of the psyche, and the meticulous causal chains of neuroscience.

Stork is impressive as Márta, charging her performance with arresting poise, so much of which is captured in micro-gestures: the trace of a smile, a narrowing of the eyes, a fragment of a sigh. The film lives and breathes in these undertones, but the interstitials with Márta’s therapist help keep us somewhat grounded. “Two months ago I met somebody at a New Jersey conference.” she tells her psychologist and describes love at first sight, a sweeping infatuation that would appear immature for a woman of forty, and yet, despite her flat cynical affectation, she explains she is powerless against it. One would expect this type of crush to be outlined by twinkly Christmas music in a Hallmark film, and yet, Horvát’s brings it into cold and sobered daylight—Márta’s affection is mature, grounded, and just a bit uncomfortable. 

This composed self-awareness brings to mind the titular heroine of Dreyer’s Gertrud, who in middle age leaves her husband for a brash young pianist who doesn’t love her back, and despite knowing the ramifications admits she loves him still and nothing could be done. In Gertrud, this type of all-encompassing love is paralleled to faith in God. Márta’s relationship with love is a similar type of parallel, it’s not so much about János (Viktor Bodó), the ostensible object of her desire, as it is about the return to her home city of Budapest, the Liberty Bridge where they were supposed to meet, the hospital where he works, all convenient pairings for her newfound trajectory. So often in a traditional Hollywood romance, a woman’s love for a man defines her, and through an odd subversion, Horvát keeps this pattern while sidelining the man himself; Márta doesn’t submit herself to his whims, but rather envelops him in her world. 

When János doesn’t acknowledge her, she decides to stay in Budapest and stake her claim. Her medical expertise allows her to quickly get a job at the hospital where he works, and dominate her professional environment, and yet she remains somewhat vulnerable to him throughout. Horvát uses Márta’s reverse-engineered meet-cute to probe the rituals and obligations of courtship, and so, even from the position of having come to the city for this singular purpose, Márta rebuffs János’ first attempt to take her out, opting instead for a quiet dinner alone. At this moment she wants the process to be completely on her terms, even though it has slipped through her fingers once before. This approach makes the ‘preparations’ of the title clearer, as Márta builds a new reality for herself in a city she thought she would never return to. In a process where she exerts full control, she creates space for a relationship with a man she has already chosen. 

This playful riff on memory, and lost and found love, has roots in classics like Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, as well as more modern entries like Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. However, Horvát’s take is an invigorating approach to this tradition, with its expansive scope of romance as rebirth. Márta rebuilds a world in Budapest — not around the man she followed, but around the symbols of her love. We find her looking out from her bathroom window at the Liberty Bridge, their planned meeting spot. The bridge, with all of its promise, the daily trips back and forth, represents a transition and a transformation driven only by her — one so self-reliant that the man might as well be imaginary. 

It’s not until the final scene that János makes his first legitimate contribution to her world, with a gift so bulky that it does not fit through the narrow doorway. We close on Márta watching this present hauled up into the air by movers to push it through a window, and as it rocks back and forth on its way, we are left with the uncertainty of whether it is even possible to fit someone else’s reality into ours. Horvát concludes her film probing the possibilities of love to break the towering walls of isolation and solipsism. “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my lids and all is born again.” — love hangs between these two worlds as we cut to black.

Igor Fishman is a writer and film critic based in Brooklyn, New York. You can find more of his work on his site Lost Asterisk. [Twitter]

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