Venice 2020 review: Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Lili Horvát)

“I should have loved a thunderbird instead; at least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (I think I made you up inside my head).”

This last stanza from Sylvia Plath’s poem Mad Girl’s Love Song opens Lili Horvát’s ungodly long-titled Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (we are going to have to abbreviate that from here on out), and opening with a poet who famously committed suicide is never a good sign for the protagonist of the work. Interpreting Plath’s stanza as the lament of the author for a love that went wrong, the final scene and especially the last shot of the film is a tantalizing tease for life (or death?) of the protagonist after the film’s end. Even the title holds ambiguity. ‘An unknown period of time’, that sounds like a premature ending of the relationship can be expected. Yet Plath’s line between parentheses is pertinent to the film too. There is a lot of opacity in Horvát’s sophomore effort which renders the film elusive to some extent even if it seems to end on a straightforward note. Yet those bookends of that poem and the final shot…

Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) is a brilliant neurosurgeon who lived and worked in New Jersey but has now returned to Hungary to meet up with ‘the one’. That ‘one’ would be Janós Drexler (Viktor Bodó), working in the same field, whom she met briefly at a conference in the US. Sparks flew, according to Márta anyway, and they made an appointment for a specific time and place in Budapest to see each other again. When she shows up, Janós is nowhere to be seen. Since she knows the hospital he works at she manages to see him in person, but he claims he doesn’t recognize her. Even though she is overqualified, she takes a job at the same hospital and moves into a crappy apartment with a view of the bridge where they were supposed to meet. Slowly she builds up a connection with her obsession, all the while being courted by a young med student (a plot line that unfortunately goes nowhere). But will it lead to love? And more importantly: is it real love?

Márta’s story about her relationship with Janós is interspersed with conversations with her psychiatrist. The interesting thing here is that it is unclear at what point in time these conversations take place. During one of these talks she says, “I wanted something so bad that I forgot I made up the whole thing.” Is she talking about Janós? Is her whole tryst with him imagined? Reading Preparations… that way would make some scenes make more sense, such as a romantic walk through Budapest where they follow each other from across the street. At one point she loses him, only to find him again out of the blue. Was that a detail in her imagined romance that still needed filling in? And there are similar gaps in the film, which is decidedly told from her perspective. Preparations… is ambiguous about this, and the story can be read as an unconventional but ultimately pretty straightforward love story. That reading would render the final act rather trite, brushing away the mystery that the film so carefully laid out, but the poem and the constant talk of imaginary things, plus the last shot of a heavy sound system hanging from a beam and pulley, seem connected in a way that suggests Preparations… is not as easy as it looks. Horvát has created an intriguing film about mental illness under the guise of an unusual love story. This makes the film seem a bit cold, and not everything works, but Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time shows her talent as a storyteller, and a more reliable one than her protagonist.