It is a frequent complaint that mainstream films speak down to audiences and don’t allow us to do any of the leg work when it comes to understanding what is occurring on screen. Lili Horvát’s Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time takes a very different approach, as we are frequently greeted with scenes that cut off at a point where a character appears to be making a crucial decision. We are asked to decide what choices they made and why they made them; this gives us the opportunity to step into their shoes and work through the themes within this story without having on the nose dialogue spelling all of this out to us. 

Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork), is a highly successful Hungarian doctor who decides to leave her job in New Jersey in order to return home to Budapest. She has done this so that she can meet up with János Drexler (Viktor Bodó). They meet at a conference and then agree to meet again at the Liberty Bridge on a certain date. She upends her entire life in order to pursue him and believes that they will enter into a serious relationship. When she eventually finds him, he claims that he has never met her and this leaves her reeling. She still chooses to settle down in Budapest and gets a job at a smaller hospital, where her colleagues feel threatened by her. Medical student Alex (Benett Vilmányi) begins trying to romance her, but she is hesitant about getting close to him. She attends therapy in order to try to work through her feelings but comes to believe that she may not be able to do so. 

Vizy is a woman who we never fully get to know and I think that makes sense. It can be frustrating to look out at the world of this film through the eyes of a person whose motivations are so difficult to grasp. Ultimately, we end up seeing her the way that others do, she’s desperate for romance but can never fully open herself up to others. She trusts the wrong people and can’t bring herself to extend an olive branch to those who have wronged her. Sometimes it physically hurts to go through this journey with her, as we can see all of the ways in which she is misguided and finds herself justifying the ends by the means. Stork has one of those faces that projects a certain prickliness. She can appear cool and calm when she is performing surgery on a patient and operates with a bracing efficiency when engaging in social interactions. This is what keeps everybody on pins and needles when they are around her, as they can never tell how she actually feels about them. Usually this sort of unknowable, aloof figure would be a villain but we are asked to feel empathy for this woman and the people who have to interact with her. That is what separates this from something like Unforgettable (2018), where an emotionally unstable, complicated woman is considered predatory and insane, because she struggles to open up.

The cinematography is key to building up the lonely, depressing atmosphere. We never get to see much of Budapest and these characters spend most of their time standing around on largely uninhabited streets in the afternoon, or eating a quiet dinner on a small table at the back of a dimly lit restaurant. The vibrancy is drained out a location that could be seen as a glamorous European locale, in which high fashion models pose in front of the Liberty Bridge. This is a gloomy version of the city and the hospital looks stately but unwelcoming. Greens, purples and different shades of black dominate the colour palette and you can’t help but be reminded of the film noirs of the 1940s. When Vizy sadly stands in the shadows and stares into the window of her lover’s house, we think back to The Third Man (1949) and wonder whether Vizy hopes that he catches a glimpse of her. There are also efforts to aid Stork’s performance through using shallow depth of field, in order to give her statements during her therapy sessions a sense of urgency and immediacy. We are forced to focus on her, as she second guesses herself at every turn and our inability to turn away from her, leaves us feeling as unstable as she does.

The costuming is also immaculate, as the business-casual gear that most of the leads have to wear, ends up seeming so restrictive. Vizy typically wanders around in moleskin coats, moccasins and pencil skirts. These ensembles make her appear put together and professional and influences the way that the medical students react to her when they find her splayed out on the ground after fainting. Her classy appearance causes people to dismiss the concerns that she has over suffering from some sort of mental problem and we almost can’t believe that she’s warring with herself, as she calmly dusts herself off and walks away from these students. They never overstress this idea and choose to have her walk around in loose clothing instead of literally presenting her as somebody with a ‘buttoned up’ jacket. This means that the purpose of her costuming never becomes too obvious and we are only subliminally aware of what director Horvát and costume designer Juli Szlávik are communicating.

The level of ambiguity might be off-putting for some but it does provide us with the opportunity to question the motives of all of the characters. Alex is somebody who is under a lot of strain, as his father has recently gone through a dangerous operation and he is a medical student. This causes us to feel sympathetic towards him, but we also seriously consider the fact that he might just be pursuing Vizy because she’s older than him, successful and initially appears to know what she is doing with her life. She has an enigmatic air and he mistakes his fascination with her for true love. That’s just one way that you could interpret his character arc and you will probably find yourself hashing out details like this after seeing the film.

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is one of those tragicomedies that makes you feel uncomfortable right up until its final moment. It never lets up and you are left with the feeling that something has been left unresolved. Some people like films to end ambiguously, while others will be left frustrated…so your tolerance will vary!

Rating: ★★★★

Exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 19th March 2021