Watching Lili Horvát’s Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time feels like being dropped into Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window – right into one of the apartments observed by Jeff. Like Jeff, we peep with no context and what we see sparks our imagination.
Homages to the old master are abound in Preparations, but Horvát firmly makes the film her own. Deftly manipulating this air of mystery to conjure a suspenseful fever-dream, the filmmaker engages a breathtaking dance on that line between reality and illusion (and maybe some delusion).
Horvát’s superb experiment in form lays a mystery over top a tale of heartbreak and obsession – but the suffering female here is not the tortured madwoman from the melodramas of the past. At least not once you get past the first glance.
Preparations begins with an idealized love story that halts abruptly, only to advance through a myriad of nightmare scenarios. The filmmaker begins ostensibly at the core of a premise, one that is rich with possibilities and packed with pitfalls.
Márta (Natasa Stork), a neurosurgeon, is leaving her promising career in the United States to return to her homeland, Hungary, after falling in love with Dr. János Drexler (Viktor Bodó) at a conference. They had arranged a rendezvous in Budapest to reunite. When he fails to show, Márta, still hopeful, her face beaming with joy, finds him in the hospital parking lot – but Drexler claims to have never met her, and she faints.
What follows is a dazzling balancing act between the illusory and the true – a film that chronicles what appear to be Márta’s compulsions and motivations. We watch as she engages in concrete steps to carry on with her new life while, at the same time, we are questioning the veracity of each situation. Márta gets a job at the same hospital where Drexler works and quickly finds a grubby apartment – apparently any place will do for her to focus on her goal. Preparations might read like the basis for a genre film, but in Horvát’s capable hands, it becomes a stunning work that defies simple categorization. Free of any overt narrative logic, it proceeds by instinct, just like our heroine.
As we struggle with the puzzling nature of Márta’s motivations, Horvát provides just enough of a hint of an explanation for each decision, before snatching it away. She chooses instead to build up a sense of foreboding. Horvát toys with our desire to defeat the overriding ambiguity that permeates the film with spot-on music and perfectly skewed camera angles (including a spiral staircase sequence a la Vertigo that Hitchcock himself would love),
Horvát heightens our unease through counterpoints. As a neurosurgeon, Márta is a strong-willed and confident person who takes the lead and even grants Drexler permission to assist her. She’s driven by some questionable passions in her love for him, but otherwise, Márta is the very model of logic. This operating scene establishes an uncanny bond between the two as they work in perfect sync.
Throughout Preperations, Horvát expertly keeps the truth just beyond our grasp. Her strict control of the film, while antithetical to its disorienting shooting style, is the very reason this movie remains so compelling. She may plant us inside a confounding realm, but she does not allow the picture to settle there. Instead, she mines the depths of that place in-between – tilting this way and that – just enough to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Preparations works so well because it offers a glimpse into someone’s psyche. Despite giving us a lead that appears unreliable, Horvát turns the very scenario of a fragile unstable perhaps delusional woman on its head by privileging Márta’s point of view. The ghosts of characters like Hitchcock’s Marnie and Truffaut’s Adele H. and many of Kieslowski’s women haunt the film. However, Horvát’s dogged emphasis on Márta’s point of view breaks any ties to these women and their stories.
In Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time, Lili Horvát painstakingly builds an image of a woman determined to be heard – thus granting her the dignity we require to follow her through this puzzling maze of glimpses and glances. The film is a highly satisfying, contemporary renewal of the mystery-romance stories in (mostly male-helmed) films of the past – with the additional delight of a frustrating yet fabulously engaging enigma of an ending.
Selected as the Hungarian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards.