Hungary’s entry for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscars, Lily Horvát’s striking and unique story has received wide critical acclaim, as has Natasa Stork’s beguiling lead performance. The noirish melodrama centres on a surgeon who encounters her soulmate at a medical conference. But when she confronts him weeks later after being stood up, he’s adamant that he has never met her.

  • Year: 2020
  • Runtime: 94 minutes
  • Country: Hungary
  • Director: Lili Horvát
  • Cast: Benett Vilmányi, Natasa Stork, Viktor Bodó

Review by Shane Joyce

An unsuspecting noir thriller, “Preparations” is an interesting take on Love and Reality.

Having traveled home to Hungary from America, brain surgeon Márta (Natasha Stark) makes her way to the Liberty Bridge in Budapest. Here she awaits fellow surgeon János (Viktor Bodá) a month earlier the pair agreed to meet here after falling in love at first sight. However he does not show up and so Márta goes in search. But, once found he tells her he has no idea who she is. Unable to accept this she starts a new life in Budapest to attempt to uncover the truth. This journey leads her down a route of stalking, paranoia and begins Márta’s questioning of her own reality.

Though the title may suggest a more odd but slightly quirky love story Lili Horvát surprises by infusing this film with very intense dark tonalities. At points she almost delves into physiological horror. However, Horvát never loses sight that this is a love story first and foremost. This blend allows the film to feel quite unique and go to some strange places without ever leaving the viewer too far behind. 

It is in those strange places where Márta begins to question her perception of reality as she struggles to understand the scenes around her. We are given insights into Márta’s questioning in a dialogue she has with a therapist which is cut to throughout the film. Natasha Stark’s performance is excellent in “Preparations” (Her debut feature performance) but it’s in the therapy scene where I feel she is strongest. Her expressions are very minute and as the exposition of the film is given through her deft acting we are forced to wait for the reveal of what really is happening in the film. 

Unfortunately once given that reveal in the final moment of the film it feels as though Horvát undermines all the hard work put into the entirety of the film. Being so haunting and evocative you would for the ending to be the same however it underwhelms but in such a way that it re-contextualises everything that came before it.

Thus, the film might deter a want for a second watch which is unfortunate as a second viewing experience for “Preparations” may be akin to a subsequent watch of Chirsopher Nolan’s “The Prestige”. This being said though, it absolutely deserves viewership. 

The presentation of “Preparations” especially earns attention. The cinematography by Robert Maly very strikingly walks a fine line between realistic and abstract imagery. He adopts a gloomy blue/green palette with night scenes bathed in tungsten giving the film a modern noir-esque aesthetic. Framing on both sides of the line and keeping the view-point of the lens locked into Márta’s deteriorating perspective creates an immersive but unsettling sensation. This is especially evident when Maly shoots inside of Marta’s apartment. It’s showcased as being a haunting liminal space yet, it still offers hope in it’s exterior views until as the film progresses it grows into a shadowed abyss. 

By bringing the apartment to life like this through the cinematography the reflection between it and her mental state is apparent. Beyond the natural intrigue that comes with questioning reality in a film, the manner of which Hárvat handles Marta’s worsening state is excellent. There are no remnants of the hysterical mentally-ill woman trope in “Preparations”. Despite her worldview crumbling around her Márta shows strength and resilience through her professionalism at work. In one particular scene wherein she is performing open brain surgery János, the figure who is throwing her own brain into chaos, joins her for the surgery yet despite this she composes herself and operates successfully. Marta’s ability to find composure like this despite her mental state offers nuance and a refreshing take by Hárvat.

Undeterred by a questionable closing scene “Preparations to be Together for An Unknown Period of Time” proves Lili Hárvat is a writer/director to pay attention to and is itself an engrossingly harrowed depiction of unrequited love.

Review by Colum Culleton

Love is a passion that is all consuming. Unrequited love devours in a different way. This is the sentiment captured in Sylvia Plath’s poem, ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, which opens the film with its final verse. “I should have loved a thunderbird instead…(I think I made you up inside my head).” Writer and director of the film, Lili Horvát, reaps a love story which seems to grow directly from the self-reflective words sown by the poet and captures that same obsessive attitude towards love.

Neurosurgeon Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) travels from America to Budapest for a rendezvous with János Drexler (Viktor Bodó), who she met at a medical conference in New Jersey. In the opening sequence she recalls her feelings in the moments after she first laid eyes on him. “I don’t know if you call that love, something that happens so fast…but, I’m going to be 40 and I’ve never felt anything like that before.” When they meet again János tells her he does not know who she is, and Márta is left in a shell-shocked state of disbelief and disorientation.

She becomes obsessed, leaves her job in America where she has lived for two decades, rents a dingy apartment and starts a new job in the hospital where János works. The story unfolds in a slow, contemplative pace, focusing on Márta as she patiently tries to form a relationship with János.

The gloomy colours and visual style are reminiscent of a film noir with a feminist twist. The spiralling theme of infinitely curving corridors and whirling staircases creates a disorientating on-screen reality. A piano motif that veers slightly off-key shifts our experience off the centreline, distorting our perspective of the melody and giving an insight into Márta’s struggle to see through the fog of her imagination and find the truth.

Her decisions are driven by her belief that her feelings for János symbolise something real. She puts faith in her heart over her mind, but this faith is increasingly tested. Márta navigates her memories of the first meeting in New Jersey, contemplating the possibility that desire may be causing her to imagine the entire situation.

There is a constant play between Márta’s emotionally self-destructive downward spiral into delusional obsession and the possibility of the birth of real love. Her exceptional competence in her job as a brain surgeon is juxtaposed with her doubt towards her own mental wellbeing. Like Márta we are left unsure of the reality we are seeing.

Horvát creates an unusual love story questioning the very idea of that emotion. The film interrogates the concept of a ‘soulmate’ pulling at the seams of such an elusive notion. It shows how obsession manipulates our everyday perceptions, and how one can wrongfully frame these perceptions as being reliable. A slow burner, the film keeps the viewer engaged on an intellectual and emotional level, an achievement supported by the captivating performance of Stork. It contemplates love and its relationship to reality in a unique and human way.

Review by Conor Ryan

A neurosurgeon returns home to Budapest and begins to question her sanity after a romantic arrangement mysteriously falls through... 

Lili Horvát’s latest feature is an intellectual and psychological exploration of love. Unfortunately, its intriguing premise is let down by poor plotting and a host of expressionless performances. Róbert Maly, the Director of Photography, establishes a moody visual style but his clean and functional cinematography is never given the chance to shine. Also worth noting are the production design and the mise-en-scène, which are nice and naturalistic without ever becoming distractingly gritty or grimy. A cold and pervasive elegance thus lends some weight to the story, which is lacking any real high-stakes drama, but a drab and pretentious score often undercuts the impact of any such spirit.

Ultimately, despite some clear talent on display, this film offers little for its audience to enjoy and remains understated to the point of indifference throughout.

Review by Lauren Cullen

Lili Horvàt's burning melodrama Preparations On Being Together For An Unknown Period Of Time explores the brain's obsession with love. Natasha Stork plays the deterministic and gifted neurosurgeon, Martha, in her on screen debut. Martha leaves her successful life in the US to chase down Jànos (Vicktor Bodo) yet becomes disillusioned when Janos claims they never met. This is a film about the brain, not the heart in love, as Martha starts to distrust her own head. Shot on 35mm film, Preparations has technicolor remnants, the texture of the picture gives character to the streets of Budapest and tells us of Marthas’s state of mind. Despite its unusual and promising set up, Preparations' gives us a pay off that feels quite benign and disappointing, however this may be intentional, with Horvat choosing to comment on the craziness of love, rather than a shock twist.

This Oscar hopeful is one with character and promise, a director at its helm with unique takes on the world. Preparations leaves you haunted and wanting more.

Review by Jamie Waddell

Lily Horvat’s uses Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (PBTUPT) was a cathartic exercise to meditate on what love really is. Love is longing, love is believing and above all, love is what you feel. PBTUPT is a love letter (pardon to pun) to love itself and it is truly wonderful.

PBTUPT follows Marta, a successful Hungarian neurosurgeon ex-pat who has moved to America. During a conference, she has a chance encounter with a fellow Hungarian, a man called Janos. Although they had only just met, they agreed to meet each-other on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest a month from now. Marta leaves America and flies to Hungary. She believes she has met the love of her life. However, when she arrives something is wrong, and it leads her to question everything she previously believed.

*(Spoilers from here)

PBTUPT is the most serene fever dream of a film. When Marta finds Janos, he acts as though he has never seen her before. This causes Marta a faint and hit her head off the ground. From that moment on, the film is never quite the same.

Marta begins to question much of what she is seeing throughout the remainder of the film. The audience is never quite sure that what is on screen is reality for the character, but we still learn so much about Marta even when the scene isn’t real. The scene reaches beyond a dream-like-state and almost becomes hallucinatory. Scenes where she is being followed by Janos, when he is mirroring her movement across the street from her. A scene which in a different context would be extremely creepy (think ‘Coherence’ or ‘It Follows’). Here it represents her want for him to follow her, to fall for her, to want her. It is joyous and also terribly sad.

Marta begins seeing a psychiatrist when she believes she is going insane. She believes as she is a neurosurgeon she knows when she has suffered brain trauma. She is looking for an easy explanation for her illusions. However the psychiatrist believes she is suffering from a broken heart.

These scenes are shot like the fourth-wall breaking interviews of Rob Reiner’s ‘When Harry Met Sally’. Those interviews are all about how these couples had chance meetings and fell in love. This can’t be a coincidence and it throws these scenes into a completely different light. The psychiatrist is a personification of the desires of Marta. Marta is trying to convince herself that she is insane, but she is just madly in love.

Horvat’s script isn’t exactly light on dialogue, but there is a focus on the body language of the characters. There are vast dialogue scenes focused on quite technical aspects of surgery but it is everything surrounding these dialogue scenes, like when Janos enters the surgery room when Marta is doing some complex brain surgery. She continues as normal, but her body language changes completely. Janos does also when he recognises her but it is more subtle.

At a conference towards the end of the film, there is conversation about the inner workings of the brain and about the brains capacity to rationalise what is wants in context of what is can see. This is less than subtle but throughout Janos’s explanation, he is locking eyes with Marta. Horvat was clearly thinking of the image when she was writing this scene. It is very powerful and it makes you believe that Marta might not be quite so insane after all.

Robert Maly’s cinematography is essential in fulfilling the dream like stasis the film exists in. Many of the shots are from a locked tripod panning very smoothly from side to side. You feel as thought the camera is floating along beside Marta as she navigates this new reality. From the moments she knows her head, the colour are most washed out, lines between colours is a bit more blurred. It seems to have taken a few queues from Woody Allen’s work, this retro style harkening back to times where it was more simple to confess your undying love.

PBTUPT is a film about unrequited love persisting in the face of all rationality. Believing that what you felt was real regardless of what your head is telling you. Lili Horvat has created one of the great films about love and desire of the last decade and you should definitely see it.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time – 8.3/10