In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes compiles a catalogue of love complaints from across literature: novels, poems, works of philosophy and psychology. In cinema, many romance-themed films are in conversation with Barthes’ text; some have internalized and shaped the concepts for the big screen, like Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, and even added to both its sentence and gesture repertoire. One line from A Lover’s Discourse floats to mind more often than others, and most often during films in which the romantic motions are not (at first glance) felt with equal intensity by the pair in question: “The other never waits.” Well, in the case of Lili Horvát’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, the other isn’t only not waiting, he wasn’t even aware of the rendezvous.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time opens with Márta (Natasa Stork, who bears a bit of a resemblance to Liv Ullman), a neurosurgeon preeminent in her field, traveling from America, where she is based, to Hungary, where she was born. Márta is en route to reconvene with a man named János (Viktor Bodó) who she met a month earlier at a neuro-oncology conference; from her description, they fell in love instantaneously and arranged to meet a month from that date, at 5 p.m., by Budapest’s Liberty Bridge. He does not show. Márta tracks János down to the medical university. He looks bemused, and tells her he’s never seen her before. She faints when János walks away. Rather than returning home to New Jersey, Márta instead assumes a position at the rustic hospital next door to János’ building, chooses a shabby apartment with a view of the Liberty Bridge and waits.
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It’s a delight to watch Stork think in Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. Her cogitations are signaled by the darting actions of her piercing blue eyes, the slight flex of an eyebrow or the raising of a subtle and pursed smirk. The intelligence of her performance rests on how she manages to negotiate her character’s simultaneous guardedness and openness: during meetings with her own doctor (composed always in tight, precisely angled close-ups), Márta’s sentences demystify what she’s doing, and her assured presence seems to cloak a logic (or illogic) borne of desperate fantasy beneath an exterior of professional, even dignified, comportment.
Bodó, too, plays in a tranquil register during Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, but both actors manage to articulate the force of their characters’ desire for each other via understated surface effects. János, a medical belle-lettrist — a Hungarian Oliver Sacks — is interested, like Márta, in the mysteries of consciousness, which connect to the film’s inciting incident. (The epigraph, from Sylvia Plath’s villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song” sets the tone: “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.).” Part of Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time’s charm is that János is neither a statuesquely gorgeous nor abundantly charming man — he’s stocky and reserved, and all the more beautiful for it. Márta watches a clip of János, as a musical child prodigy, perform a rendition of Franz Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” which analogises her desire for him as being as difficult to apprehend as it is to catch a quick-moving fish. (This establishes a parallel to a later scene when János plays Márta Schubert’s “Gute Nacht” — the line “Love delights in wandering” rings out as the direct antithesis of Márta’s vision of love: steadfast and fixed.)
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Some of Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time‘s oblique moments may seem to invoke comparison to Krzysztof Kieślowski, but I think the tighter connection is with the work of Ildikó Enyedi (a Hungarian filmmaker who is thanked in the credits). It’s with Enyedi in mind that some of Horvát’s gestures show their limitations: there’s one hard-to-accept contrivance involving a conversation in a lift, for instance. Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century and On Body and Soul, on the other hand, find ways to incorporate extreme coincidence and tortured exposition into the same lyrical textures. Horvát’s film has a more subdued kind of lyricism, on display most readily during night scenes when the camera’s long lens blurs and distorts the lights of the city, and perhaps correspondingly doesn’t pull off the more incidental chains in the narrative.
It’s intriguing to note that, in the UK at least, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time has the same distributor as Christian Petzold’s Undine. The two directors’ styles and subjects complement each other, and both are filmmakers adept at constructing sequences that blend objective and subjective camerawork. Horvát and Petzold both fashion some rudimental aspects of noir within their narratives, and both play on the melodrama of the forgotten woman — reversed arrangements of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
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Accordingly, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time has its own Midge. This is Alex (Benett Vilmányi), the son of one of Márta’s patients. He questions her methods at first, but once his father’s surgery is successful, he realizes the impeccable nature of Márta’s professional judgement, and of course becomes infatuated with her. Although the thematic neatness of Alex’s role is apparent, Vilmányi can’t hold his own against his scene-partners, which is partially in the design, since Márta’s love for János is intense but interiorized, so only the smaller gestures of her performance give away her desire’s coordinates.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time appeals for a psychoanalytical reading at points, but in a way that rises organically from the narrative, style and the way the actors interact with each other. The Freudian model of desire in Horvát’s film asserts itself most recognizably in a delectable scene during which Márta and János walk on opposite sides of the street from each other. They saunter along their respective pavements, casting glances, and stop to take in a longer, more saturated inspection. Then, Horvát cuts to their shoes, and, at Márta’s instigation, the characters start to tread backwards, as Gábor Keresztes’ score reaches its loveliest pitch. At one moment, Márta loses sight of János, only for him to playfully reappear off-screen, the only confirmation of which is the etching of a smile across her face. The way the scene structures their acts of looking is significant in itself, but the film’s understanding of desire emerges from the way the scene ends. They reach Márta’s apartment, and as János attempts to cross the street, planting one foot firmly forward, she takes a step back, and ends their flirtatious amble with great suddenness, announcing that she has a dinner party to attend. Desire, this scene in miniature and Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time at large supposes, is only possible because it cannot be satisfied, and has to be prolonged. To desire, then, is to wait.
Marc Nelson (@MarcDNelson) is a film critic and bookseller based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He writes for Take One Cinema and The Wee Review. Marc also blogs at theworldentire.com.