PREPARATIONS TO BE TOGETHER FOR AN UNKNOWN PERIOD OF TIME (TIFF20) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Hungarian filmmaker Lili Horvát’s enigmatically titled Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time follows Márta (Natasa Stork), a successful neurosurgeon from Budapest at the top of her professional game after building an enviable career in New Jersey. Falling in love with fellow Hungarian János (Viktor Bodó) after they meet at a work conference in the United States, Márta decides to drop everything and move back home to pursue the romance further. But when János fails to appear at their pre-arranged meeting place on Budapest’s famous Liberty Bridge, Márta’s dreams of her new life collapse around her even further when she confronts János and he fails to recognize her.

On the cusp of turning forty, Márta is clearly in a state of flux at this juncture in her life. While her first instinct is to return to America, something stops her and she decides to stay in Budapest. She accepts a job that is far less impressive than the one she left abroad, now forced to prove herself to lesser-qualified male colleagues. She moves into a barely habitable apartment that she shows no interest in embellishing as she balances her new work life with her continuing obsession with János and visits to a psychologist, the latter of which largely structure the film and allow us insight into Márta’s inner thoughts about what is happening, thoughts which she otherwise keeps carefully disguised.

It is in these sessions that we learn not just about Márta herself, but about what could in fact have led to this highly intelligent, successful woman uprooting her life for a man who does not recognize her. From the outset, she says that she believes János when he says he does not know her, but still she perseveres. On the surface, the film has all the titillating narrative trimmings of the more orthodox erotic thriller, but something about the combination of these therapy sessions and both her and János’s shared work in neurosurgery suggests there is something far more complex at play here, well beyond hackneyed dark-passion-run-amok tropes.

Plot-wise, Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time is a film almost temptingly easy to reveal too much about, which in a movie where the process of discovery is the central point would significantly remove many of the elements that make it so intriguing. Is Márta an unreliable narrator, and if she is, does she even know it? Or is there something more complicated at play?

Eschewing the typical cliches attached to this trope, what we discover here instead is a neurological exploration of the crush-turned-romantic-obsession that pivots around the subjectivity of falling in love. In Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time, Lili Horvát grants her protagonist the right to her unusual circumstances and allows her the dignity of figuring it out herself. It aggressively rejects generic norms and expectations and is all the more enigmatic and authentic for it.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic whose other publications including Film International, Flicks, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, and Alice in Wonderland in film. Alexandra is a programmer at Austin’s Fantastic Fest and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University.