Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is a brainteasingly ambiguous surgeon-stalker chiller

In Lili Horvát’s second feature a brilliant neurosurgeon flies across the Atlantic to Budapest in pursuit of her love interest – but doubts soon creep in.

Natasa Stork as Vizy Márta in Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020)

▶︎ Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.

Lili Horvát’s debut feature The Wednesday Child (2015) was about Maja, a teenage mother-of-one trying to better herself against a backdrop of poverty, petty crime and a less than supportive partner. The characters in her second come from a wholly different socioeconomic background – protagonist Márta (Natasa Stork) and her would-be lover János (Viktor Bodó) are internationally respected neurosurgeons on the cusp of middle age – and yet at base Márta is just as emotionally insecure and uncertain of what the future holds as was Maja.

Indeed, the very nature of her work makes Márta peculiarly obsessive about how her own mind functions, her conversations with her psychoanalyst (Péter Tóth) a running commentary that threads throughout the film. The clinical precision of the film’s title (a direct translation) may seem overweeningly fussy at first glance, but it makes perfect sense once we get to share Márta’s own understanding of what makes her tick. She can’t do to herself what she does to her patients, literally opening up their skulls so she can probe their brains directly, but she’s worked out a psychological equivalent.

The film opens with her returning to her native country for the first time in two decades, following a brief encounter with János at a conference in the US and an impulsive agreement to meet on Budapest’s Liberty Bridge at a certain date and time. But János stands her up, and when she tracks him down at the hospital where he works, he claims not to recognise her. Is he intentionally lying or suffering from amnesia, or is there another explanation closer to home, such as the possibility that it’s Márta who has convinced herself that her own private fantasies about him happened for real, exacerbated by a loudly ticking biological clock? Like any good mystery, the film keeps these options open until the final minutes, and the opening quotation from Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, with its parenthetical “(I think I made you up inside your head)“, establishes that ambiguity from the start.

Natasa Stork as Vizy Márta in Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

There are elements of Vertigo in Márta’s subsequent obsessive quest, which includes abandoning her apparently thriving New Jersey career in favour of staying in Budapest and getting a job at the hospital where János works (her US qualifications and experience being more than sufficient to allow her to waltz into the same neurosurgery department and indeed outshine her older male colleagues), carefully constructing an impeccable professional front that will let her stalk him without attracting undue suspicion. János is intrigued by both Márta herself and her professional ability (he’s just published a book on neurosurgery), and seems happy to indulge her – in which respect one of the most revealing scenes is a silent ‘conversation’ between both on either side of a road, consciously mimicking each other’s movements.

But the filmmaker who looms largest over Horvát’s film is Krzysztof Kieslowski. Like Irène Jacob in The Double Life of Véronique (1991), Natasa Stork is playing her first lead role after a filmography that mostly consists of minor parts (particularly in Kornél Mundruczó films – Horvát was the casting director on 2015’s White God), and Horvát and cinematographer Róbert Maly are mesmerised by Stork’s face much as Kieslowski was by Jacob’s, shooting close-ups from multiple line-crossing angles during the therapy sessions and paying particular attention to her eyes, piercingly blue only from certain perspectives.

Horvát can’t quite match Kieslowski’s uncanny ability to infuse even the most outwardly banal object with ineffable significance, but the overall control of colour and mood already marks a substantial advance on her debut. As a romance, the film is as chilly as the title threatens (János’s lifelong love of Schubert has shifted from the upbeat The Trout as a child singer to the bleak, spare Winterreise as an adult), and the somewhat rushed conclusion doesn’t match the promise of a fascinating build-up. On this evidence, however, Horvát’s career looks to be well worth following.