Director Lili Horvát’s new film is an unsettling exploration of love and obsession, carried by a mesmerising performance from Natasa Stork.
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (whew, what a doozy of a title) centres on Márta (Stork), a Hungarian neurosurgeon living in the US who falls instantly in love with János (Victor Bodó), a fellow doctor, at a New Jersey science conference. János is also Hungarian, living in Márta’s hometown of Budapest. They agree to a rendezvous in Budapest on the Liberty Bridge. Soon after, Márta leaves her life and family in New Jersey behind to follow her heart and seek out János.
Events don’t turn out as she hopes, however, and when Márta finally finds him, János denies ever meeting her before. This sends Márta’s already fragile mental state into a dangerous, downward spiral. Refusing to accept János’ assertion, she reckons with a memory that may or may not be true. Drifting through the rain-soaked streets of Budapest as her fixation grows increasingly pronounced, Márta’s unsure if she’s going insane or being gaslighted. This uncertainty fuels Horvat’s mystery, and as events unfold, viewers, like Márta, may start to doubt what’s real and what isn’t in this disorienting world.
Dripping in style and foreboding dread, Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is a film that’s easy to get lost in. Although Márta’s journey doesn’t coalesce into a satisfying whole, Horvát’s film remains compelling from start to finish. It’s propelled along by a three-dimensional protagonist and a story that captivates, despite its disappointing conclusion.
Indeed, Márta fits right in with any Kieślowskian protagonist, a character trapped by her emotions and unravelling before the audience. We see a strong-willed, hard-working woman who nevertheless remains vulnerable to the same neurological phenomena that she studies on a regular basis. Although much of her backstory is concealed from viewers, it’s clear she has experienced trauma in her past that informs her present. Stork’s uncompromising performance, often filmed with intense close-ups, conveys a character weathered by previous experiences. At times, Márta is barely holding on to her sense of selfhood, abandoning it to chase János, a shady individual who hides secrets of his own.
Cinematographer Róbert Maly captures Márta’s struggles with an eye for sensory detail, evocative lighting, and occasionally, heavy-handed symbolism. Maly’s shot compositions, combined with a score that distils Márta’s troubled infatuation with fleeting bursts of euphoria, renders Preparations often dreamlike in nature. Hinting breadcrumbs are periodically distributed throughout to catch both the viewers and Márta off guard. For example, a subplot with a young medical student who inconveniently falls for Márta, named Alex (Benett Vilmányi), is meant to mirror her own chasing of Janós. The film toys with our emotions to keep us in doubt and in a constant state of unease.
When Márta starts working at the same hospital as János, she encounters him more and more frequently. This is fuelled both by her own compulsion and János’ own ambiguous actions—whether or not he’s concealing the truth from her. One memorable scene, in particular, involves Márta and János walking parallel to each other from across the street, following each other’s graceful movements as if in a dance. Márta’s rush of joy comes to a screeching halt when János is suddenly nowhere to be found. Was it all imagined, or is something more sinister going on?
Unfortunately, Preparations doesn’t quite know what to do with all these intriguing puzzle pieces, neglecting to give Márta or her journey the resolution they deserve. Márta’s characterization is vivid, but she largely remains a pawn at the mercy of other forces during the film’s runtime. Similarly, the film’s revelations are unsatisfying and frustratingly dour—attempting to develop empathy for other characters, but failing to do justice to Márta’s own struggles. It finishes with a final shot that, upon further reflection, feels overly pretentious.
As a richly stylized, unpredictable twist on longing, Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is absolutely worth watching. Just make some preparations to be let down when the ending arrives.
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is currently playing in virtual cinemas, such as at The Belcourt: https://www.belcourt.org/films/virtual-preparations-for-being-together-for-an-unknown-period-of-time/
Words by Alex McPherson
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