“I should have loved a thunderbird instead; At least when spring comes they roar back again. I shut my eyes and the world drops dead” — Sylvia Plath, from “Mad Girl’s Love Song”
As the popular classical French love song “Plaisir d’Amour” says: “The joys of love are but a moment long. The pain of love endures the whole life long.” In that regard, one might ask how much joy there would be if love lasted less than a moment, perhaps only a fleeting glance? For Marta Vizy (Natasa Stork, “Jupiter’s Moon”), a Hungarian-born neurosurgeon in Lili Horvát’s (“The Wednesday Child”) enigmatic Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, the joys of love are so evanescent that they cannot even be measured in time. Hungary’s submission for Best International Film at the 2021 Oscars, the film is a meditation on loneliness, the role of projection in a love relationship, and the problems we have in communicating the truth to each other.
Complete with a femme fatale, loads of atmosphere enhanced by Gábor Keresztes’ (“Comrade Drakulich”) score, and bits of opera and chamber piano music, and a captivating mystery that refuses to relinquish its hold on the viewer, all that is missing is Humphrey Bogart. Approaching the age of 40, as she tells her therapist (Péter Tóth), she has nothing to show for it other than, “One ex-boyfriend, two close friends, no children, one house.” According to Horvát, the film “shows the inner journey of a strong, determined, and yet fragile woman: A neurosurgeon who has achieved everything in her career, yet something fundamental is deeply missing from her life.”
Convinced that she has met the man she has been searching for her whole life at a convention in New Jersey, Marta makes an agreement with János Drexler (Viktor Bodó, “The Bridgeman”), a Hungarian doctor, to meet her in Budapest at the Liberty Bridge one month later. Willing and even eager to take risks at this point in her life, Marta takes the agreement seriously and flies back to Hungary after 20 years of living and working in the U.S. When János fails to show up at the specified time and location, however, she searches for him at the local hospital but, after seeing him at the hospital parking lot, she is shocked to learn that he does not recognize her and claims not to even know her, telling her there is a case of mistaken identity.
Unprepared emotionally for this revelation, she promptly faints ,but is revived not by the man of her dreams, but by Alex (Benett Vilmányi, “Guerilla”), a 20-something medical student who will play a major role later in the film. At first questioning her memory, then her sanity, Marta tells her therapist that it is possible she may have fabricated the relationship and it almost appears that she would rather be diagnosed with a mental or personality disorder than to accept the fact that she has been rejected by her would-be lover. Not ready to give up and return to the U.S., Marta takes a job as a surgeon at the hospital where he works, a position beneath her pay grade, but giving her hope that it will bring her closer to finding out the truth.
She takes a run-down apartment close to their proposed bridge meeting spot, constantly checks the photos from their New Jersey meeting to make sure she wasn’t dreaming and follows János in a taxi to watch his movements from a distance. Róbert Maly’s (“The Wednesday Child”) impeccable cinematography also adds a touch of magic realism in an iconic scene in which Marta and János walk on opposite sides of the street and imitate each other’s movements. As the two circle around each other, Marta is pursued by Alex, the young med student who revived her from her fainting spell, now revealed as the son of one of her patients, a man from whom she removed a brain tumor, an operation unfortunately shown in graphic detail.
The well-meaning, but in-over-his-head Alex takes Marta to dinner and claims that she loves him and should be grateful for his admiration, but she refuses to become involved. Natasa Stork’s performance is mesmerizing and one wonders why it has taken her so long to get her first real screen opportunity. She is cool and detached, but never cold or less than self-assured, though close-ups often provide a hint of her tenuous relationship with reality. Returning to acting after many years as a director, Viktor Bodó adds his own touch of charisma, adding another dimension to a fascinating puzzle. Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is an absorbing viewing experience that keeps us riveted to the screen, attempting to find out if there are any answers at the bottom of all the questions.
Though it does not detract from the excellence of the film, to me, why we love another person is not a science that can be analyzed either as one person’s projection or as a result of the jumping of chemicals between neurons in the brain. It is not a thing at all, but an emotion that can be rediscovered and embraced in all its mysteries and its holiness. As the poet Rilke wrote, “Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now . . . resolve to be always beginning, to be a beginner. There is only one journey. Going inside yourself. Here something blooms; from out of a silent crevice, an unknowing weed emerges singing into existence.”