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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.)

The final stanza of Sylvia Plath’s 1953 poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” might seem a strange epigraph for a film about a top Hungarian neurosurgeon, but Lili Horvát’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Time reframes the way that so-called madness, specifically of the female sort, might be understood. Indeed, for her second feature, released mid January, Horvát relies upon the powers of the cinematic frame to complicate notions of mental disorder. Shot on 35mm to sumptuous effect, Preparations follows Dr. Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) as she quits her job and flies out to her hometown of Budapest at the prospect of reuniting with a man named János, for whom she fell hard at a New Jersey medical conference. “He didn’t say anything at the lectures,” Márta shares with her therapist, a sounding board for her evolving self-diagnosis. “It was how he was watching.” 

In so many ways, the act of watching and analyzing is what propels the story forward. When János is nowhere to be seen at their meeting spot on the city’s Liberty Bridge, Márta’s eyes widen, perplexed in a crowd of pedestrians headed east. What is “liberty,” the movie seems to ask, to a woman suddenly freed of responsibility, but without love? In an extreme long shot that epitomizes the existential thrust of the entire film, she runs, cellphone in hand, across to the other side of the bridge, the camera panning at the exact same pace so that she seems to be going nowhere. Márta confronts János outside his office building at the public medical school, fainting after he claims, “I’ve never seen you before.” Like any jilted, sensible surgeon, she heads back home, only to pull a volte-face at the Ferihegy airport after a body frisk from a security agent. Did she only imagine her affair with her bearish beloved? Has she lost her man, or her mind? Much of Preparations tracks Márta in her obsessive pursuit of answers, in her new life divided between deft doctoring and lonely evening sleuthing. She must decide whether to privilege order or ardor; the film makes clear that a brilliant woman can rightly desire both.

Still from Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Time (Courtesy Greenwich Entertainment)

“I felt this is it … he’s right for me, just as he is,” Márta recounts to her unnamed analyst, acutely aware that her rash decision goes against everything she’s heretofore valued. “I don’t know if you can call it love … but I’m about to turn 40 and I’ve never felt that way before.”

Preparations has been called “Hitchcockian,” likely for its Vertigo-esque voyeurism and meticulous mise-en-scene, but Hitch presumably never spent this much time thinking about what any woman wanted, on the screen or in the seats. 

Inspired by New York School photographer Saul Leiter, cinematographer Róbert Maly achieves a visual geometry within each frame that may remind audiences of Michelangelo Antonioni’s moody midcentury trilogy (L’Avventura, 1960; La Notte, 1961; L’Eclisse, 1962). In this case the heroine is effectively trapped within the baroque, decrepit, or shadowy edifices of contemporary Budapest. The city — like Márta’s home and dress — appears intermittently bleak and beautiful, retrograde and timeless, within the lush, yet eerie dreamscape Horvát and Maly have crafted shot by shot. That Márta experiences such unfiltered desire within often dreary, post-Soviet confines suggests the extent to which all infatuation is deeply interior. While Preparations falters in its attempt at narrative resolution, it might be better read as a love letter to a city divided between romantic decadence and sterile modernity, echoed in the tensions between Márta’s turbulent longing and the painstaking precision of her professional duties. 

Still from My Little Sister (Courtesy Film Movement)

Like Preparations, which is Hungary’s official 2021 Oscar entry,  Switzerland’s entry, My Little Sister, orbits a woman navigating midlife chaos, and explores with nuance — and refreshing lack of moralizing — the unconventional decisions of its protagonist. Directed by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, and starring seasoned actors Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger, My Little Sister depicts the relationship between Lisa (Hoss) and her twin brother, Sven (Eidinger), when he becomes seriously ill with leukemia. Amid the competing demands of her life as a writer and her role as wife and mother, Lisa takes on the additional role of devoted caregiver to her (two minutes) older brother, rescuing him from a mother (Marthe Keller) more concerned with hitting the sauce than tending to her son’s medication schedule. 

At the start of the film, Sven, a stage actor, has just received a marrow transfusion from Lisa, and emerges from his formerly sealed-off hospital bed listening to a Brahms aria (called Schwesterlein, a gesture to the movie’s German title). But where so many cancer films rely on over-the-top plots or easy sentiment, here the opposite is true: in the next scene, Lisa wryly hands Sven a pair of dark glasses in the back of a sun-drenched cab, his bedraggled wig granting him a comic resemblance to Kurt Cobain. That Eidinger makes cancer look at once awful and rock-star edgy is but one example of how the film avoids clichés of terminal illness for something both more complicated and, ultimately, moving. “The film has a serious, tough subject,” Hoss explained in a Q&A with film critic Pete Hammond, “but is so filled with chaos, lightness, and humanity — things that go wrong when someone is ill, but you have to laugh about it.” 

Still from My Little Sister (Courtesy Film Movement)

Hoss plays Lisa without a speck of vanity. Shadows lurk beneath her sea-green eyes; at times she looks like a beauty queen who’s stumbled through a war zone. And, in a lot of ways, Lisa has. “It’s a path that describes the life of many women — of a wife, lover, sister, daughter,” Hoss reflected, “and you try to combine everything and be perfect at everything.” 

This pressure also plays out for Márta in Preparations, as she weighs her romantic delusions against her hyper-competent surgical feats. “One ex-boyfriend, zero kids, two good friends, one house, half a summer place, seven days of work a week,” she lists pensively to her bearded shrink. But where is rapture in this routine? And what is worth risking in order to feel it?

Like Natasa Stork, a veteran of the stage in Hungary, Hoss and Eidinger are both members of Berlin’s Schaubühne, the acclaimed theatre company for which the fictional Sven desperately wants to keep performing. And like Horvát, Chuat and Reymond rely on the talents of their leads to convey the emotional stakes, rather than spell them out. Dialogue is relatively minimal in both films: Márta’s first real conversation with János happens over an hour in, and Lisa and Sven are depicted together for a full six minutes before they talk. 

Still from Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Time (Courtesy Greenwich Entertainment)

For much of My Little Sister, Lisa aims to both champion Sven’s thespianism and rekindle her own creativity as a playwright, long eclipsed by her husband’s position heading an illustrious Leysin boarding school. Between carrying her own temporary teaching load and caring for ailing Sven as well as her two small children, she wrestles with whether to go back to her former home of Berlin or stay in Switzerland for her spouse’s career. “This is about us, we should decide together!” Lisa insists to Martin over a late-night bowl of spaghetti. When he retorts that she is “not herself” these days, she declares, “I’ve never been more myself. Never.” So too is Márta gaslit when she asks her former professor for a job at the university hospital. “You’re out of your mind,” he says, citing her superior credentials. When he guesses that she’s staying in Hungary for a man, he grunts, between drags on a cigarette, “Oh god, women are so stupid. Even the smart ones.” 

Women’s ability to find both personal and professional fulfillment has long been a trope of the “having it all” myth, but rarely are women’s creative, professional, and familial lives as inextricably inseparable onscreen as in these two films. Horvát, Chuat, and Reymond have made complicated movies about complicated people — but in their scrupulous direction they demand a keen viewer for whom emotion need not prove anathema to analysis. Both films insist that dreams and logic, intuition and “preparations,” necessarily coexist, and that women aren’t crazy when these values collide.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Time and My Little Sister are currently streaming through various virtual theaters and platforms.

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Eileen G'Sell

Eileen G'Sell is a regular contributor to Salon, VICE, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the Rabkin prize in arts journalism. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.