Note: The writer of this review watched Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Hungary’s submission for this year’s Academy Awards may or may not win Best International Feature Film (as the foreign-language category has been renamed), but it’s already got Longest-Ass Title locked up. Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time seems like a direct reference to the ongoing COVID-19 quarantine. That’s not the case at all, thankfully. Instead, writer-director Lili Horvát has fashioned her own variation on the classic arthouse puzzler Last Year At Marienbad, perhaps going with that mouthful of a title because Two Months Ago In New Jersey sounds a tad underwhelming.
Not that any of the film takes place in the Garden State, mind you. Neurosurgeon Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) has just returned to Budapest after nearly 20 years spent working in the U.S., and she’s terribly excited. Not so much because she’s back in her home country, it quickly emerges, as because she happened to meet a fellow Hungarian doctor, János Drexler (Viktor Bodó), at a New Jersey conference, where they hit it off famously and made plans to meet again, at a prearranged date and time, on the Pest end of Budapest’s Liberty Bridge. János doesn’t show, however, and when Márta spots him at the hospital where he works, and asks what happened, he claims not to have the slightest idea who she is. What’s more, Márta—whose profession demands keen awareness of all the things that can go awry with the human brain—isn’t entirely sure that he’s lying, or that he’s somehow forgotten her in just two months. Her therapist (Péter Tóth), on the other hand, gently suggests that maybe she wants to believe that she’s delusional because that, while distressing, would be less distressing than having been so cruelly rejected.
What’s true and what isn’t? Horvát sticks close to Márta’s troubled mindset, frequently shooting scenes involving János in ways that suggest she may be imagining his presence; at one point, the two take a lengthy stroll together on opposite sides of the street, with him sometimes visible to her and sometimes not. Stork, who’d previously played small roles in several of Kornél Mundruczó’s films (Horvát was the casting director for White God), makes Márta a tightly controlled bundle of nerves, relishing that apparent psychological oxymoron. The film generates intrigue for exactly as long as it remains ambiguous, and even tosses in a subplot (about Márta treating the father of a med student who subsequently falls for her) that exists primarily to show a patient have his cognition tested while his brain is actually under the knife. Just as a reminder that things we take for granted—like knowing the word for a commonplace object like an apple or a backpack—rely on specific neurological processes that aren’t guaranteed to always function.
The downside to Horvát’s claustrophobic focus on Márta’s psyche, however, is that there’s very little to the character apart from her confusion about János, which increases when he starts putting the moves on her (and then promptly disappears after they have sex). Eventually, Preparations has to stop preparing and deliver some sort of answer to its central mystery, even if that turns out to be one of those maddening or exhilarating (according to taste and/or how skillfully it’s handled) shoulder shrugs. Sadly, the reveal here is quite banal, which retroactively makes the film as a whole play like a prolonged, unsatisfying tease. There’s an unresolved ending of sorts, but Horvát’s final shot encapsulates that with a heavily metaphorical image that’s clearly intended to be profound but just looks kind of silly. The same might be said of opening the film with an excerpt from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” with its recurring parenthetical line “(I think I made you up inside my head).” Intriguing at the outset, it becomes downright risible in hindsight.