'Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time': Film Review

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time
Courtesy of Poste Restante
A classy feminist take on stalker thriller tropes.

A lovesick brain surgeon questions her grasp on reality in Hungarian director Lili Horvat's cryptic Oscar contender.

A cerebral mystery thriller told by an unreliable narrator in a fugue of emotional dislocation, writer-director Lili Horvat's Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time puts a lightly feminist spin on classic screen tropes about hysterical wronged women driven by romantic obsession and fatal attraction. Selected as Hungary's official submission to the Academy Awards, this haunting slow-burn psychodrama is superbly acted and quietly gripping, despite some minor plot wobbles and that cumbersome title, which Horvat borrowed from an early 1970s underground theater play. Premiered to politely positive reviews in Venice and Toronto last year, the film launches digitally in the U.S. this Friday, Jan 22.

Making her supremely assured debut in a leading role, Natasa Stork stars as Marta Vizy, an elegant 40-year-old Hungarian neurosurgeon who has spent the last two decades working at a prestige U.S. clinic. Flying home to Budapest for a rare visit home, Marta is anticipating romantic fireworks with Janos Drexler (Viktor Bodo), the hotshot fellow surgeon and celebrity author whom she met at a conference a month before. But after he fails to show at the agreed assignation, she becomes agitated, tracking him down at the hospital where he works. When Janos flatly denies ever meeting Marta before, she faints in the street.

Plunged into self-doubt, a deflated Marta confesses to her therapist that she may have imagined the entire romantic fantasy: “I wanted something so bad I forgot that I dreamed up the whole thing”, she shrugs. But her haunted expression and eerily cool composure tell a different story. Initially planning to fly back across the Atlantic, she defiantly changes her mind. Staying on in Budapest, she rents a crappy apartment and lands a job at the run-down hospital where Janos works. “Go back to America while you still can,” Marta's former tutor cautions her, but to no avail.

As she begins to encounter Janos on a daily basis, a borderline stalker posing as a coolly cordial co-worker, Marta seems determined to solve the mystery of her obscure object of desire. Was he lying about their meeting plans? Or is she somehow gaslighting herself about the entire episode? Meanwhile, Marta herself becomes the target of unrequited obsession from sulky young hunk Alex (Benett Vilmanyi), the son of one of her patients, an unhealthy fixation that she exploits in the hope of provoking a jealous reaction from Janos.

A sustained exercise in slow-burn suspense, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time falters in its final stages as Marta's inner-self investigation resolves itself with a fairly banal, benign explanation. After Horvat and Stork have done such subtle work in humanizing Marta and dismantling the sexist scaffolding around femme fatale tropes, this timid payoff is disappointing. Perhaps that is intentional, a knowing rebuke to the macho melodrama of classic film noir, but it still weakens what might have been a more timely critical commentary on the privileging of male narratives over female voices.

Horvat cites Francois Truffaut's historical bio-drama The Story of Adele H. (1975) and the work of Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieslowski as influences on Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. There are other pleasing echoes here too, from Hitchcock to Haneke. Marta's regal detachment and chic, vividly hued outfits invoke the visual grammar of vintage Hollywood more than contemporary indie cinema, while the grainy warmth of Robert Maly's 35mm cinematography reinforces this analogue retro mood. Gabor Keresztes's spare score, punctuated by snippets of opera and chamber piano music, also lend Horvat's absorbing film an agreeably ageless European art-house mood.

Production company: Poste Restante 
Cast: Natasa Stork, Viktor Bodo, Benett Vilmanyi, Zsolt Nagy, Peter Toth, Andor Lukatz, Atilla Mokos, Linda Moshier
Director, screenwriter: Lili Horvat
Producers: Dara Csernatony, Lili Horvat, Peter Miskolczi
Cinematographer: Robert Maly
Editor: Karoly Szalai
Music: Gabor Keresztes
Sales company: NFI World Sales, Budapest
95 minutes