Slippery, supple and sinuous, Hungarian director Lili Horvát’s deliciously reworked psychological noir is a spiral staircase, polished to a glossy shine, down which unreliable motivations, self-delusions and romantic obsessions tumble in gorgeous 35mm. Pivoting on a terrifically self-possessed performance from lead Natasa Stork — in her debut screen performance — “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” eventually even earns the unwieldiness of its title, as symbolic of the kind of hesitance and second-guessing that is part of the delirium of potentially unreciprocated love. Sometimes the greatest romance is in the waiting; often, it is all in the mind.
The mind is more than usually the central concern in Horvát’s film, which, despite being a love story, has the brain rather than the heart as its organ of main activity. Marta (Stork) is a neurosurgeon — a very brilliant one, whose possibly fraying mental state, refreshingly, is never shown to impinge on her high-stakes professional life. Marta has been living in the U.S. for 20 years, working in a world-leading brain clinic, but as the movie begins she is returning to her native Budapest to keep a romantic assignation with a Hungarian doctor, János (Viktor Bodó), whom she met at a conference. When János, “An Affair to Remember”-style, fails to show up at the appointed hour on Budapest’s Liberty Bridge, Marta tracks him down and confronts him. He claims never to have seen her before. Marta faints.
She’s helped up by Alex (Benett Vilmány), a young med student who is then understandably concerned when Marta, who coasts into a job at János’ hospital, is assigned to operate on his father. But when the surgery goes well, mainly because of Marta’s decisive overriding of her less competent (male) colleagues, Alex develops an infatuation with her, which Marta, in her aloof way, encourages. But she is still pining for János and puzzling over his rejection, which she admits early on in a session with her therapist (Péter Tóth) may be because she had made their whole affair up. Who better than a neurologist to understand the power of the mind to fabricate a much-desired reality? While Marta’s behavior is often worrisomely stalker-ish, it’s this clinical, ruthless self-examination that makes her such an unusually un-hysterical melodrama heroine.
The mood of “Preparations…” is established by DP Róbert Maly’s striking 35mm cinematography, with its warm grain and textural response to color. Marta’s therapy sessions are often rendered in an extreme closeup, and with the turquoise background picking up the orange of her lipstick, the dark of her hair and the periwinkle blue of her eyes, they almost seem shot in classic Hollywood Technicolor. Stork’s performance, meanwhile, riveting, shrewd and unknowable, has more in common with the women of modern European cinema: She is a Kieslowski heroine, styled, with her movie-star hair and sharp tailoring, as a modern noir throwback, rendered in the bold hues of a Douglas Sirk picture.
It’s an intoxicating cocktail, but Horvát, like her leading lady, keeps her calm, and keeps her distance. Marta may be stalking János, but she does it recessively, by putting herself in his eyeline, and waiting for him to come to her, which culminates in a strange but somehow deeply sexy encounter, when the pair share a long evening walk but on opposite sides of the street. Perhaps this is what film noir looks like when the (unusually intelligent) femme fatale — traditionally an archetype with little agency and less interior life — is the protagonist of the drama, and not merely the projection of everyone else’s fantasies.
In many ways, Marta’s knottiest and most conflicted relationship is with her own mind. Not only has she very possibly imagined her grand love affair out of thin air and a couple of charged glances, she is coolly aware of, and even professionally curious about, that very possibility. This compelling twist on the gaslighting narrative — one in which Marta may be gaslighting herself, preferring to believe she is insane rather than unloved — gives Horvát’s film its fevered intricacy, even as her elegant presentation keeps it cool to the touch.
That elegance is a little undone by the film’s slightly unsatisfying ending, which suggests that Horvát’s cunning filmmaking outstrips her third-act screenwriting in sophistication. Or maybe it’s simply that Marta is such an unusually enigmatic and interesting heroine that, if you interpret the finale in the most obvious, wish-fulfilment way available, the life that beckons is so much smaller and more domesticated than her complex but unhappy reality prior. Horvát includes a quote from Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” in which the repeated lines “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (I think I made you up inside my head.)” do speak directly to her film’s themes. But it’s the opening of that stanza that is even more evocative: When Plath writes, “I should have loved a thunderbird instead,” she is yearning for a passion that is reliable and evergreen, but that is also, like the thunderbird, imaginary.