Wednesday 17 March 2021

Always on my mind: "Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time"

It may be advantageous that Lili Horvát's Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is headed to VoD this weekend: for starters, there's no way you'd get all that on a cinema marquee. Yet that long-winded title proves a fine fit for a film about a notion pursued to impractical and unrealistic extremes. The backstory is this: at a neurosurgery conference in New Jersey, Marta (Natasa Stork), a Hungarian doctor living in the US, meets Janos (Victor Bodó), a colleague visiting from the old country. All reports suggest - though bear in mind we're told rather than shown this, by Marta herself - that the pair hit it off, at least enough to have arranged to meet on the Liberty bridge in the Hungarian capital one month hence, and here's where we come in. First bummer: Janos doesn't show, and when Marta tracks a man who looks like him down to his place of work, he shrugs her off, claiming never to have seen her before with just the right mix of bemusement and cringing shame to set us wondering who exactly is in the wrong here. She immediately cancels her return flight, checks herself into a hotel room, and begins nursing an obsession, taking a job at the hospital across the street from where this supposed Janos works, and spending her nights tailing him across town. Her plans aren't immediately apparent; the cool fascination the film exerts stems from watching someone who appears so scientific and rational in their day job deviate from the obvious prognosis in the data Horvát scatters before her. If anyone on screen seems in dire need of an MRI scan, she does.

Horvát's film itself resembles a trend nudged towards an extreme. It takes the "messy woman" business Bridesmaids and more recently Fleabag made light of, dials the humour down and the romantic tension up, and emerges with a film that might be coupled with last month's arthouse talking point Passion Simple in some future "loopy women" double-bill. What the message of these movies is, who knows? It almost certainly can't be as reductive as the senior surgeon who, upon learning of Marta's doomed romantic quest, fondly concludes "women are so stupid, even the smart ones", though even the female taxi driver who chauffeurs our heroine on her noctural stalking missions feels obliged to speak from a position of weary experience: "If you've got to chase him, the whole thing is a bust already". But then - wait - why does the apparent stranger Marta accosted in his works carpark then send her an invitation to his upcoming book launch? Why is he later seen leaving a concert the pair have attended together with another woman entirely? Are these two just playing a game? And is this why the film starts so late in this pair's story - so that we're way behind the real action, and forever scrabbling to catch up, like the therapist to whom we see Marta confessing in the opening scenes? A film this conspicuously enigmatic intends only to raise questions and keep raising questions, and the biggest one set hanging over these proceedings may be this: is Horvát merely messing with her audience's mind?

Puzzle that out as you go, but Preparations... is actually founded on a very sound contrast: the precision and control of neurosurgery - squeamish viewers be warned, we get a full-colour illustration of that around the halfway mark - as set against the messiness and unpredictability of the emotions at large here. Horvát has come up with a fresh, quietly stylish take on an old, old story: head versus heart. The glitches in her logic - the bigger deviations from narrative expectation - make a kind of sense, should you choose to see them as the film's own brain going on the fritz, or just being circumvented by the heroine's passion; these sequences are what Marta wants to happen, rather than what plausibly might. These deliberately slippery moments speak to how we misremember entire stretches of relationships, and to the weird push-me-pull-you of any romantic pursuit, where things are rarely as serene as asking someone you like to spend an extra afternoon or evening together. What Horvát's really probing, I think, is how we overcomplicate these matters, turning what should be pure pleasure into at best grand opera (hence the classical cuts on this soundtrack), at worst prolonged agony. For fullest enjoyment, you'll need to be a shade fonder than I am of watching grown adults tangling themselves up - simplify, you fools; simplify - but I'll concede that Preparations... has an appreciably knotty truth at its centre. Romance without practicality is but a shot in the dark; as thrilling as that suspense might seem in the moment, it shouldn't be surprising if - as Horvát's especially cryptic closing image insinuates - people wind up hanging in the breeze, getting hurt or crushed.

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time will be available to stream from Friday via Curzon Home Cinema.

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