To start with something completely different from Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time (2020; streaming on Criterion Channel or to rent elsewhere): in Avengers: Infinity War, Doctor Strange says that there are 14,000,605 possible outcomes in the battle against Thanos, and only one of them means Thanos’s defeat. Outside of the world of Marvel super heroes, and even without the Time Stone, it is not hard to see that every single choice we make affects the courses of our lives, and so limits the number of choices we will have in the future.
It is not something I much cared about when I was 20, nor am I disturbed that my life choices are severely limited after more than four decades. But it is a fascinating and fertile theme for stories, in particular, of love, longing, and loss. Preparations is Lili Horvát’s unique variation on the theme of what we want, the choices we make to get those things, and how far we can manipulate our environment in order to fulfill those desires.
The set-up is intriguing from the beginning, as Márta (Natasa Stork) is traveling to Budapest to meet a man whom she had met at a New Jersey medical conference. We learn a little bit about why from her voice-over (which is revealed to be from a session with a psychologist) and from a written note specifying the place and time that she is to meet János (Viktor Bodó). But when he fails to show up at the place and time, she tracks him down at the university hospital where he teaches. But he claims not to remember her.
We are thrown into a swirling mystery that has us wondering whether Márta has imagined the entire encounter in New Jersey (she even comes to believe that she has), or whether János is lying, and why. It is surreal, but not in a fantastical way. Instead, it’s the sort of experience among which we would count déjà vu and dreams that (at least appear) to come true. One key moment is when János is talking about his book, and someone asks whether he believes in ghosts. He says it is sort of like when he thinks he sees a long-dead patient on the street. There is something happening in our minds that makes connections between us and other people, and it is outside purely rational explanation.
This, I think, is the most interesting part of the movie, because both János and Márta are neurosurgeons. After Márta has operated on a man in order to restore his speech and thought patterns, János tells her that 99 out of 100 surgeons would have gone too far and harmed the man further. She says that she almost did go further. The line between help and harm is often sub- or supra-rational, and more intuitive than intellectual.
Preparations asks whether the romantic connections between men and women function in a similar way. Márta cannot really explain why she was attracted to János, and János seems to have his own mysterious attraction to her. There is also a mirroring theme that runs throughout, literally between Márta and János on the street, as well as in windows and in the recurring events in the movie. How do our minds make abstract connections between things and people and places? Why do certain moments remain in our memories while others disappear, sometimes for good? All of these questions intertwine throughout the film, and even though the ending was a little less than satisfactory for me, the uncertainty of the movie is mirrored by the uncertainty inherent in our own minds and experiences.