It starts with a premise tailor-made for an advice column or a ’90s romantic comedy: “I met a man at a professional conference in New Jersey and fell madly in love, and we agreed to meet on a Budapest bridge in a month. But when I got there, he pretended he didn’t know me. What do I do now?” But Lili Horvát’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020) rejects the meet-cute possibilities; instead, it is a challenging drama about whether we can ever know what’s going on in our brains—both figuratively and literally.
Márta is a hot-shot Hungarian brain surgeon living in the US when she falls in love with János Drexler at the above-mentioned conference. She decides to upend her life and return to her native Budapest (where she has no family or friends, having been gone twenty years) to start a life with János. When he doesn’t show, Márta decides to stay in Budapest, renting a shitty apartment and finding work at a community hospital, where even the director admits she’s wildly overqualified. In the meantime, she functionally stalks János, desperate to know why he rebuffed her so cruelly. As she falls deeper into obsession, the question beats louder and louder: What is the truth?
Like Rashomon (1950) (and this year’s The Last Duel), Preparations has no easy answers. The film constantly pushes and pulls between reality and fantasy. As soon as we see a scene between Márta and János that must be in her head (including an adorable walking-and-silently-flirting scene), we simultaneously get more clues that these events are in fact happening in actuality—and vice versa. Where is the line between coincidence and disordered thinking? Márta desperately wants her shrink to diagnose her with borderline personality disorder, but he thinks she wants the diagnosis as a shield against a very real hurt, a clever subversion of the usual patronizing “It’s all in your head, honey.” Márta precisely solves the neurological issues of a patient with complex symptoms, but is just as uncertain if her own experiences are real.
As Márta, Natasa Stork is reminiscent of Isabelle Huppert: all red lips and beautiful, placid exterior with a wild sea of roiling emotions just under the surface, threatening to reveal themselves at any moment. Horvát’s camera adores Stork; she’s luminous whether under the sterile hospital lighting or in the near-darkness of her apartment. Together, Horvat and Stork have created a restrained, cerebral melodrama, and an enigmatic portrait of a woman willing to throw everything away for a ghost.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time screens tomorrow afternoon, December 28, at the Museum of the Moving Image.