‘Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time’ Review: A Puzzling Romantic Mystery

Had Jesse and Celine actually met six months after the events of “Before Sunrise” as planned, had they gone horribly wrong to the point where one of the parties couldn’t even remember the other, and had they both been neurosurgeons, the scenario might look something like “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.” Such a mouthful of a title, poetic and unwieldy, belies the starkness of Hungarian writer/director Lili Horvát’s haunting and mysterious second feature, a kind of amnesiac love story crossed with the gloomiest of Krzysztof Kieślowski movies, and bordering on existential science fiction. Even if the conceit winds up a little undercooked, and a loopy ending doesn’t quite stick the landing, the filmmaking is exacting and assured, pulling us in like a current into the heart of a most strange romantic mystery.

Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork, a soothing and appropriately impenetrable presence) is a neurosurgeon, single and childless and approaching 40, who’s just returned to Budapest after an extended residency across the ocean in New Jersey. She’s returned to Hungary spurred by a chance encounter back in the United States with a fellow doctor she met at a conference United States: She believes that, two months ago, they agreed to meet for a rendezvous on the Liberty Bridge, which connects Buda and Pest across the River Danube (an apt symbol for bridging disconnection). But when Márta finally manages to track János (Viktor Bodó) down, he has no idea who the hell she is, and claims she must be mistaken. This is immediately, and understandably, concerning for Márta, who’s just uprooted her whole life to return to her home country to meet a strange man, and now feels like a crazy person.

The film is carefully elliptical about the exact nature of Márta’s mental slip-up. Did she ever actually meet this man back in America? Is he a conjuring of her imagination? Either way, she takes up a position at a local hospital where János also works, a decision that might incline you to, understandably, label this woman a stalker. But she glides through this existential crisis so gracefully — a placid gaze eternally fixed to her face — that Márta is either especially adept at hiding her crazy, or not crazy at all. While János claims to have never met her, he’s intrigued by this solitary woman, a virtuoso in her field with a shrewd knack for spotting brain pathologies way ahead of her male colleagues. A gruesome, unflinching sequence depicting brain surgery punctures this otherwise subdued and internal affair with a shocking viscerality, which just goes to speak to Horvát’s dedication to constantly destabilizing us with shifts in tone.

As her confusions about János continue to roil, Márta starts to take a taste of the world around her. “One ex-boyfriend, two close friends, no children, one house,” she tells a counselor, summing up her life as a package of have-nots and always focused on a lack that, perhaps, János can fill. She briefly dallies with the son of one of her patients, who looks to be just a kid and is pushy with the sexual advances. But Márta isn’t keen to open up, and János is a far more inviting proposition anyway as Márta, a purveyor of empirical data and hard science in her profession, clearly loves an enigma, and a puzzle to be solved.

And what a puzzle “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” is. It’s absolutely gorgeously shot by cinematographer Róbert Maly, glowing with a brittle beauty in contrast to the sulky exteriors of Budapest, here cast as a depressing Eastern European city, but also a dreamscape in which Márta can play. While she spends a lot of time chasing János around the city — not unlike James Stewart and Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” which snaked around San Francisco trailing another kind of romantic mystery — there’s a delightfully odd sequence where the two do finally sync up, mirroring each other’s movements from across the street.

The last 20 minutes or so flip a switch on things, and don’t entirely cohere into a satisfying conclusion as Márta’s obsession is mostly left unsolved, and her previous life as a neuroscientist in the states bubbles up to the surface. The premise is mighty unique, but Horvát (once a casting director for “Pieces of a Woman” and “White God” director Kornél Mundruczó) perhaps sets herself up for failure with the length of her ambitions. The final image is as puzzling as any, but it sort of hangs there (literally) like a question mark, and whether you want to try to answer the question posed before it or simply let it linger is up to patience of the viewer. “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” is as complex as the organ it makes its primary subject — ultimately the brain, not the heart — but also filled with unknowable synapses and urges locked up and left unsolved forever. Still, this one sticks in your head.

Grade: B-

“Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” premiered in Venice Days in September before bowing in the Official Selection of the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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