Is it possible for a brain surgeon to separate themselves from the science of their own thoughts and feelings? This question is posed halfway through Lili Horvát’s 2020 film, “Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.” The answer is clear: to do one’s job, a surgeon must separate themselves from their emotions on the operating table.
But for Márta (Natasa Stork), an accomplished Hungarian neurosurgeon living in New Jersey over the last 20 years, that’s easier said than done. After hitting it off with a doctor named János (Viktor Bodó) she met at a conference a month prior, she flies to her home country for a rendezvous. But when she finds him, he doesn’t remember her.
Rather than forget the whole thing and get back to her life in the United States, Márta becomes obsessed. She moves into an apartment, gets a job at the same hospital as János and slowly inches her way closer to him. As she stalks him, she interrogates the workings of her mind the same way she would examine a patient’s brain. The rest of the film, told purely from Márta’s point of view, is an unsettling look at the realities we create and how they, in turn, shape the world around us.
The mind and the brain are two different things. Nowhere is this articulated more clearly than in two back-to-back scenes early on in the film, starting with a high-pressure one where Márta is operating on a patient with brain cancer. She leads with precision and calmness in a room full of older men, most of whom doubt her expertise. She operates within millimeters of the man’s speech center, and stops just in time to remove the tumor without causing more damage. The staff congratulates Márta, while she is focused on János, who entered the room halfway through the procedure to assist her.
Later that day, she is in therapy discussing her predicament and hoping for a clinical diagnosis of her mental state. She tries to make sense of inkblots; in one, she sees two genderless figures with their hearts placed in front of their bodies. Like the inkblot, Márta feels disconnected from her own body, and even though she knows everything about how her brain works, she can’t seem to figure out what her mind (or her heart) is telling her. Should she hold onto the story she believes in, or adjust to the reality she is watching unfold before her?
From the moment János denies knowing Márta, the audience is left with two possibilities. Either he is gaslighting her, or she is schizophrenic. The latter is hard to believe, considering her tight grip on reality in the operating room. What’s more likely is that a man she has met once and never exchanged phone numbers with would lie to her as soon as he realizes she is serious about furthering their relationship. Men are notorious for lying, especially when faced with the threat of commitment. Women then are often forced to bear the emotional weight of those lies.
As Márta navigates the swamp of her own consciousness, a new problem arises when the young son of the patient she operates on begins pursuing her. The son, Alex (Benett Vilmányi), becomes fixated on Márta, who becomes increasingly out of reach as she blindly chases János, who slowly starts to express interest in her.
It’s the story of the chicken and the egg: is Márta pursuing János because he is out of reach, or is her dedication a reaction to the college student who is now obsessing over her? And are the two men expressing interest in Márta because of her obliviousness or in spite of it? None of these questions are answered, because Márta can’t answer them for herself. She is a victim of her own mind, and the triangular pursuit seems to unfold out of pride rather than desire.
The entire film has an eerie, Hitchcockian quality to it, expressed through close-up shots of Márta’s eyes and slow camera pans that suggest the presence of an outside observer who is controlling the plot. Like in Steven Soderbergh’s 2018 psychological thriller, “Unsane,” or Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2017 film, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” the medical establishment does little to tamper the absurdity of the main characters’ ideations. Instead, it legitimizes them and calls into question the sanity of the viewer, who has just as little ability to change the storyline as the characters themselves.
As its title suggests, “Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” is hard to grasp. It is illogical and at times slow-moving, not unlike the actual experience of falling for someone. The central question of whether or not János actually remembers Márta is asked until it is answered, but it loses relevance in comparison to the minutiae of Márta’s descent into madness. Who cares whether or not he’s lying — it’s not like that will change her mind about him. The more relevant question is, how can anyone be sure they wouldn’t do the same?