Director: Lili Horvát
Stars: Natasa Stork, Viktor Bodó, Andor Lukáts
Remember at the end of Before Sunrise, after Jesse and Celine had spent 24 hours bonding so completely on their journeys around Vienna, when they made a pact to meet up 6 months later without swapping phone numbers? Sure you do. Now imagine if Before Sunset had opened with the revelation that one of them forgot the other existed. You’re almost on-point with the mysterious problem at the centre of Lili Horvát’s cool Hungarian noir, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.
That title may resonate a little too heavily with the numerous COVID-related lockdowns we’ve all endured, but this isn’t a heavy-handed grab for the cultural zeitgeist (mercifully).
Meet Dr. Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork), an ambitious brain surgeon returning home to Budapest having gained her qualifications in American, who is the Celine in our analogy. Her Jesse is a fellow doctor, Dr. János Drexler (Viktor Bodó). When he misses their meet, Márta tracks him down, only to be stalled by his failure to recollect her. Márta believes him, but that leaves her with a conundrum – why doesn’t he know her? Did she imagine it all somehow? Can she trust herself? There are no flashbacks to corroborate Márta’s version of events. And so as she operates on the brains of others, she is forced to confront the veracity of her own faculties.
The surgical scenes here perhaps can’t help but recall the frostily stylised ones found in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Perhaps it is the dark study of psychological response that proffers this connection. Horvát’s film pries into inner and outer darkness; her camera lurks in the shadows; her characters are often bathed in them. Formally, it brings to mind another modern master, Claire Denis, and specifically the sense of potent gloom that cloaked her 2013 film Bastards. For a time Preparations shares a similar feeling of both charged eroticism and intense foreboding. It’s tough to shake the sensation that something terrible is about to happen. We watch braced, adopting crash positions.
While looking at Rorschach images, Márta describes seeing a person with their heart out in front of them, outside of their body. She may as well be detailing her own state of being. She soon finds herself working alongside János, who maintains an impersonal relationship. Yet she follows him, remaining locked into her seemingly errant recollection. And in turn, he follows her. A new connection begins between them, one preoccupied with balance and keeping pace with one another. The sense of mirroring that Márta found in the ink blot comes to dominate their burgeoning relationship and – almost – the shape of the story itself.
Along the way Horvát makes several damning observations on the state of Hungarian healthcare, but this is first and foremost a character study that ruminates on the desirable nature of mysteries. And, later, an altogether strange kind of romance. David Lynch often cites that there’s magic in a mystery, and a kind of sadness in its solution. Beguiling as Preparations becomes, its resolution feels strangely deflating; as though the truth could never quite measure up to the beauty of wondering. The difference, I suppose, between a crush and the reality of that spectral other person.
János equates operating on the brain to saving a burning city, excising elements to secure the safety of the remainder. This same sense of salvage is present throughout Preparations. The film reflects the lengths we’re willing to go to in order to manifest our desires, but also the ways in which we’ll naturally try to protect ourselves from further damage or erosion. In it’s first two acts it is a dark smudge of a film, heady and captivating, and it’s a little bit of a shame that this dissipates right at the end.
Still, for the most part this is a stunningly rendered second feature for Horvát, and Stork’s first major lead performance. The two of them certainly grab plenty of attention over Preparations‘ neat 95 minutes.
Names to watch, and remember.