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The Hungarian entry for best international feature film may not have made it into the 93rd Oscars selection, but I’d strongly suggest that you place it on your own viewing shortlist. From its teasingly enigmatic title (translated fairly literally from the Hungarian original) to its neatly cyclical narrative, this crystalline tale of memory, love and brain surgery from writer-director Lili Horvát (who made 2015’s The Wednesday Child) is a treat – sinewy, seductive and beautifully strange.
Natasa Stork is quietly charismatic as Márta Vizy, a Hungarian neurosurgeon who has carved out a respectable career in the US. Yet following a brief encounter with fellow brain specialist and author János Drexler (Viktor Bodó) at a medical conference in New Jersey, her life has been upturned by the realisation that he is “what I’ve been looking for”. Now she’s in Budapest, waiting to meet the man she loves. But when János fails to show up for their hastily arranged rendezvous at the Liberty Bridge, Márta seeks him out at his hospital, only to be told that he has no memory of ever meeting her before.
Has Márta encountered a doppelganger? Is János just pretending not to know her? Or has she simply imagined their putative relationship, carefully conjuring “every detail so even I believe it happened”? As a student of the mind, Márta knows only too well the tricks it can play (the film opens with a quote from Sylvia Plath’s Mad’s Girl’s Love Song: “I think I made you up inside my head”).
Like the obsessive stalker of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, gripped by the delusional “erotomania” of happenstance, perhaps Márta has projected her own desires on to an unwitting subject. Or maybe, as her psychiatrist (Péter Tóth) suggests, the truth is even worse: that she longs for a diagnosis of madness to cover the altogether more mundane truth that the love of her life is actually just like all the rest: a liar, a cheat.
Horvát has cited Truffaut and Kieślowski alongside Hitchcock as key influences (the spectre of Vertigo looms large). Yet the emotional tension of this seductive psychological romance reminded me unexpectedly of Guillaume Canet’s superb French adaptation of American novelist Harlan Coben’s thriller Tell No One. Impressively, Horvát manages to keep her narrative options open for far longer than should be credible (solutions can only disappoint), with Márta and János playing an unspoken game of cat and mouse as they follow each other through a city that seems to mirror and map her internal conflicts.
One particularly audacious sequence, which Horvát cheekily calls “the first ‘love scene’”, finds Márta operating on the brain of a patient, only for János to walk into the theatre (the medical/theatrical interplay is pointed) and start “assisting”. Later, they fall into a spontaneous ritual of walking together on opposite sides of the street, with no words exchanged, just eloquent looks and glances. When János disappears on one such walk, we are left uncertain as to whether he was really there at all. Maybe we too have fallen into Márta’s trap of misremembering what we have seen. Or maybe János just took a different turn.
Cinema has always been the perfect medium for exploring the elasticity of memory, with films implanting themselves in our consciousness like waking dreams (see David Lynch’s back catalogue for proof). Here, Horvát takes palpable pleasure in conjuring an uncanny world of ghosts, beautifully shot on 35mm by cinematographer Róbert Maly, who took inspiration from the photography of Saul Leiter, and hauntingly accompanied by Gábor Keresztes’s sparse score. But it’s Stork who carries the film, drawing us deep into Márta’s kaleidoscopic world, her piercingly quizzical expression challenging us to solve the puzzle of her experience, or perhaps daring us not to.
Source: The Guardian
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