★★★☆☆

Shades of Hitchcock blend with paranoia, self-doubt and deception in Lili Horvát’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. Returning home to Budapest after many years at the cutting edge of the neurological field in New Jersey, Márta (Natasa Stork) comes down through the clouds from blue sky to misty greys.

An overly cumbersome title aside, the Hungarian director’s sophomore feature lands with the subtle imagery of crystal clarity turning to doubt. And at a first therapy session, cleverly edited to give the impression that Márta – screen right, then left, repeated – is having a conversation with herself, furthers the notion that both she – and we – are in need of some form of convincing. Learning that she dropped everything and gave up a successful career in the States for a man whom she met at a conference only a month prior, we wait at their agreed meeting point on Liberty Bridge with some scepticism.

But when he doesn’t show and at a chance encounter soon afterwards János (Viktor Bodó) denies having ever met her, the plot thickens. As does Márta’s self-questioning, disbelieving state of mind. Neither coming, nor going, she flees to the airport, before a defiant stare across the fourth wall demonstrates her resolve to stay and uncover the truth. Internet snooping, taking a lowly position at the hospital where János works, and a shabby apartment overlooking the bridge, the delusions – or are they? – take a firmer hold.

Appearing in practically every shot of the film, Stork’s restrained performance communicates Márta’s growing uncertainty and obsession through striking, expressive blue eyes. The only suggestion we have had to support her memories is a hazy, waking dream image of a woman aside an unseen, blurred figure of a man in the film’s opening moments. Cinematographer Róbert Maly’s roving camera, tracking Márta’s movements along circular hotel corridors, up spiral staircases, around bends in tunnels, are visual echoes of her own search through the recesses of her mind.

A brain surgeon questioning her own lucidity and faculties is an interesting dynamic to pursue. Horvát confines our point of view to Márta’s for the duration, so questions go unanswered until clues begin to very slowly reveal the potential truth. Eye contact between the pair suggests a certain recognition, but who is the young woman present at János’ book launch and then a concert he attends? Is he purposefully not acknowledging meeting Márta in America for the sake of a marriage? Fractured images of doorways and split rooms further fragment Márta’s consciousness. Alone at home and at her new workplace, where her superiority in knowledge and skills irks senior male colleagues, Márta’s desperate isolation does elicit real sympathy.

Yet, for the most part, it is self-imposed. Ignoring ever more desperate messages and calls from a concerned friend in the States, as well as the cloying advances of a patient’s son, Márta has only one motivation – rekindling whatever may, or may not, have occurred with János. The pacing and lack of incident may detract from the overall emotional investment we have for Horvát’s latest, but in its construction of a murky intrigue, composed visual style and Stork’s exceptional performance, there’s enough to make the journey home to Budapest a worthwhile visit.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63