I recently corrected a major personal blindspot for an episode of The Swampflix Podcast: I finally watched Vertigo. Actually, we watched four different versions of Vertigo for that discussion, if you include its cheap-o homages Obsession, Perversion Story, and The Green Fog. While I wasn’t fully convinced by the critical consensus that Vertigo is The Greatest Film of All Time (a near-impossible standard for any movie to live up to), I found the experience of watching that same story repeated in film after film to be mildly hypnotic, to the point where I now see its influence everywhere. Thinking back to recent, unrelated movies I didn’t immediately clock as “Hitchcockian” when I first watched them—titles like Phoenix, Ismael’s Ghosts, Double Lover, and Dogs Don’t Wear Pants—all I see is Vertigo, Vertigo, Vertigo all the way down. That was also my exact experience while watching the recent Hungarian romance thriller Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. Any of the long-simmering intrigue & dread the movie establishes with its high-concept premise can’t help but feel like a distant, hollow echo of Vertigo to me right now, while I’m still stumbling through new movies in this Hitch-hypnotized state.
At least Preparations to Be Together gender-flips the usual Vertigo dynamic, detailing the romantic & erotic obsession of a woman trailing her dream version of a man who may not exist, as opposed to the Pygmalion tropes of the story we’re used to. A Hungarian neurosurgeon returns to her home city of Budapest after decades of practicing medicine in New Jersey, stalling her prestigious career on the cutting edge of medicine technologies to chase down a man she had a brief romantic connection with at a medical conference. When she reunites with him in his hospital’s parking lot, he does not recognize her, claiming they have never met. And so, we have the ironic story of a neurosurgeon losing her mind as she obsesses over a man she’s intensely attracted to but who also may be a total stranger, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination. She’s more of a quiet observer than she is an active, charismatic protagonist – conveying most of her internal conflict through the cold intensity of actor Natasa Stork’s metallic blue eyes. Still, director Lili Horvát manages to maintain a constant tension between heartbreaking loneliness & otherworldly mystery throughout, even if her reluctance to do anything flashy or concrete with that stored-up energy can be a little frustrating once the end credits hit.
Preparations to Be Together feels like Vertigo reimagined (or maybe unimagined) as the kind of middling Euro psych-thrillers I routinely, dutifully watched as a teen, when late-night IFC broadcasts were my only access to High Brow Cinema. Its unflinching indulgences in sexual intimacy, surgical gore, and philosophical discussions of the human brain are the exact kind of thing that would’ve made me feel smarter than I really was as a mouthbreathing teenager, but I can’t say they resonate with any real heft now. It ultimately wasn’t my recent over-exposure to the apparently wide-ranging genre of Vertigo Homage that numbed me to the movie’s low-key, ethereal charms. It was more that after decades of watching so many wishy-washy Euro headscratchers on cable broadcasts, film festival screens, and borrowed library DVDs it’s hard for any one example to stand out from the others. If anything, my recent Hitchcock Homage tangent was a life raft that gave me something solid to latch onto, since so much of the film is fluid & restrained.