‘Preparations to be together for an unknown period of time’ (Lili Horvát, Hungary 2020)
Khalid Ali’s selection for the best feature film in 2020, and Hungary’s submission for the ‘Best International Feature Film’ for 2021 Oscars
by Khalid Ali
The opening credits for Lili Horvat’s film are lines from a Sylvia Plath’s poem pondering on the futility of falling in love with an imaginary person:
‘’I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
I think I made you up inside my head.
I should have loved a thunderbird instead’’
We are immediately drawn into the perplexed mind of Márta (Natasa Stork), an eminent Hungarian neurosurgeon with a thriving career in the States. Marta ‘meets’ a fellow neurosurgeon, Mr János (Viktor Bodó) in a scientific conference in New Jersey. An instant attraction sparks between the two surgeons, and they agree to meet back in Hungary two months later. Márta delivers on her part of the deal and waits for János at the Liberty Bridge in Budapest on the agreed date. However, János never shows up. Disappointed and frustrated, Márta confronts János in the hospital where he works, only to be told that ‘they never met’ and her fabricated story of a brief encounter in New Jersey is ‘all in her head’. At the beginning Márta is determined to find the reason behind János’ harsh rejection. However, soon enough she starts to question her own sanity and whether she did imagine the whole affair. The lines between fact and fiction begin to blur in Márta’s mind. As a science-minded person, she seeks a logical explanation in a psychiatrist’s consulting room. To pursue matters further, she takes a drastic decision of relocating to Budapest to work in the same hospital where János is based. Everyone thinks she is ‘mad’ for leaving her privileged position in the USA. Another battle awaits Márta in Budapest, as a female surgeon she must work harder than her peers to earn the respect of a male-dominated surgical department. Performing high-risk brain surgery on a patient brings Márta into contact with the patient’s son, Alex (Benett Bilmányi) a young medical student who becomes infatuated with the older surgeon. A tense chasing game ensues with Márta stalking János when she herself is being stalked by Alex.
The film works beautifully on several levels: an intriguing character study, an intense psychological thriller, and a master class in film-noir. Each scene is cleverly plotted to advance our understanding of the motivations behind Márta’s actions; her decision to rent a shabby flat is explained by a subtle scene showing the flat having a view of the Liberty Bridge. While living there Márta can keep a watchful eye on the Bridge in case János fulfils their earlier promise and visits the agreed meeting place.
Official Film Trailer – ‘Preparations to be together for an unknown period of time’
The film has already won several accolades in major international film festivals. Credit goes to director Lili Horvát, and Natasa Stork’s portrayal of Márta as a bewildered doctor treading a fine line around the edges of sanity. Having a successful professional career does not make her immune from mental illness. Her rational approach trying to make sense of her fragile mental state endears her to viewers rooting for a happy ending for the troubled protagonist. Márta is not infallible; her struggles with hidden desires and emotions could jeopardise her esteemed professional standing. The temptation to give in to Alex’s romantic advances threatens crossing professional boundaries between doctors, and patients’ family members. Raging bouts of jealousy as Márta sees János befriending a mysterious young woman worsen her faltering grip on self-control. A scientific mind like Márta’s cannot cope with grey zones of uncertainty; she is used to definitive answers and cure provided by surgical procedures. However, as a human being she cannot find convincing answers to her rapidly declining mental state.
At the film’s end Marta’s dilemma is resolved by an unexpected confession from a key character; saying anything more would spoil the intricately assembled Hitchcockian-puzzle. The clues were there all along, but a mind overwhelmed by desire, and a vision obscured by emotions can make it extremely difficult to differentiate between reality and fantasy. Then again, the last haunting scene featuring a piano dangling in mid-air might challenge your convictions as a viewer about what you have just seen. A second viewing might be required to tighten your grip on ‘the real reality’.