Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time  Review: A psychological noir that loses its way despite the solid preparation
The most important thing Lili Horvát’s inviting title ‘Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time’ does, is to prepare its protagonist and its viewers to deceive. That is not entirely a bad thing. Many great films – take the ones by Hitchcock, for instance, are known for tricking the viewer. But the question remains the same as they are for any form of storytelling: Do you feel cheated at the end of it all?
If the answer is yes, and in unrewarding ways, the teller has not told the story well. And Horvát’s story, which she wrote, directed, and co-produced (along with Dóra Csernátony and Péter Miskolczi) does not come together in any way whatsoever. The film, titled ‘Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre’ in Hungarian, received rave reviews across the world and you may not agree with me on this one.
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The film opens with lines from a Sylvia Plath poem. When I watched it, I went with an open mind; excited even, and before the reviews came in. The lines are the closing of a villanelle titled ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ (published in Mademoiselle, 1953):
I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
The last two lines quoted here, for instance, are refrains appearing throughout the 19-line verse. What Horvát plays with is the “I-think-I-made-you-up-inside-my-head” bit. The film is part psychological noir, part thriller, part drama, part romance; an altogether contemporary genre hybrid that is just the right fit for anyone looking for something that will hook them. For most of its 95-minute runtime, it takes that job and executes it seriously.
Vizy Márta (Natasa Stork) meets someone at a conference in the US. She has been working there as a neurosurgeon for nearly 20 years although she was born in Hungary. She knew this was it when she saw the man. This was who she had been looking for. Practically knowing nothing about him, not even that he was Hungarian, “it was how he was watching,” she says. “He is right for me, just as he is.” She moves to Budapest initially to meet him, and permanently to figure him out.
Cinematographer Róbert Maly shoots with an icy distance in 35 mm. He gets sufficient help from the production designer, Sandra Sztevanovity; art director, Anna Nyitrai; and set decorator, Mihály Tápai. I suppose Vizy had agreed to meet him at 5 in the evening. At Liberty Bridge, Pest Side because her little diary says so. Didn’t they exchange numbers? Or social media handles? It is the present, after all.
Vizy dresses up. The score (Gábor Keresztes) is upbeat. She wears earrings. The costume design is by Juli Szlavik, makeup by Ernella Hortobágyi, and hair by Mónika Tóth. The trio gives Vizy an air of sophistication and professionalism in other scenes as well. Vizy practises a wave too, for now, to say hi, and sets off to the bridge. We get to see some Budapest, she does not; her focus is elsewhere. Her smile turns to a frown when she learns he has ghosted her.
She is resourceful, though, as she tracks him down through a phone call while walking away from the bridge. That is when we hear his name for the first time, János Drexler. She finds out the hospital he works in and sees him as he is leaving. Vizy paces behind him and calls him by his first name, lovingly. She says hello, sans the wave, before asking him why he did not show up. And this is where the story begins if it had not already.
The man (Viktor Bodó) says, “Sorry, madam,” only to add “I think you’re confusing me with somebody else.” When she presses on, he goes, “Sorry, but I’ve never seen you before,” and walks away. Natasa Stork, who started off with excitement, then curiosity, later relief, is now stoic. She faints! And the editor, Károly Szalai is wise enough to cut to a black screen for a few seconds. Even if he is returning to people waking her fainted body in a while.
With this excellent premise, how can you not sit and watch what Horvát has waiting for you? Add to that, both Vizy and János are brain surgeons. Vizy, furthermore, is an excellent one. Budapest cannot fathom why she has moved there when she was working in one of the best hospitals in the US. They feel lucky to have her operate on the toughest of cases there. She does not care too much about where she lives, though.
Neither Stork’s brilliantly measured performance nor Vizy’s investigation into what actually transpired let the film down. For that matter, Horvát’s directing chops are admirable. Where the film works is in giving the viewer a female gaze on the deception story. We only know Vizy’s story of reality or delusion or being gaslit. If only it managed to tie up its loose ends than tidying it, it would have been a great film.
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Like a long-running television series that is eager to please its fans, the motive for this resolution is unknown if not unjustified. I am not sure if genre films fall into this trap of explaining everything to the viewer at times, but that is no excuse for this film. Things were working just fine when the doctor did not know. “I fancied you’d return the way you said, / But I grow old and I forget your name,” is the stanza before the quoted lines of ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ in the opening.
Even with the answers, she found out about herself or János, I wish Vizy had investigated him for two-thirds of the film, grown old, and forgot him for good. That way, we could have spent more time with Stork’s performance and Horvát’s direction and prepared to be together for an unknown period of time with films that quote more Plath, have equally mouthful titles, and work on whatever worked well in this.