While it remains to be seen what this year's COVID-19-impacted Academy Awards ceremony will look like, my guess is that there will be an Oscar winner for best international feature, the category that until recently was known as best foreign-language film. I haven't come close to seeing the 93 films that have been accepted — a record for the Academy — but I'm happy to recommend two of them, both dramatic thrillers that demonstrate the power and persistence of love.
The Hungarian submission has one of the best titles I've heard in years: It's called Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. The movie itself is pretty terrific, too: a dizzying film noir that never heads where you expect it to.
Natasa Stork plays Márta, a brilliant Hungarian-born neurosurgeon who has been living and working in New Jersey. A month earlier, she met a doctor there named János (Viktor Bodó) at a medical conference; they spent a night together and agreed to meet again soon in Budapest. But when she arrives at their agreed-upon meeting point, János isn't there. And when she tracks him down, he claims not to recognize her.
Márta almost heads home, but then abruptly changes her mind. She begins to engage in what seems like extreme, obsessive behavior, renting an apartment in Budapest and getting a job at the hospital where János works. Is János lying, or did she somehow dream up their original brief encounter?
What makes the riddle so fascinating is that Márta seems driven not just by desire, but also by scientific curiosity. The movie is founded on a delightfully strange paradox: It's about an expert on the human brain questioning the limits of her own knowledge. And the writer-director, Lili Horvát, deepens the mystery with odd camera angles and intense colors in what feels like an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, the ultimate film about romantic obsession and mistaken identity.
But if Vertigo was all about a man's urge to mold and shape the woman of his dreams, Preparations to Be Together is about a woman trying to figure out if the man of her dreams even exists. By telling this story from Márta's perspective, the movie takes the film-noir trope of the femme fatale and slyly turns it on its head. It's mesmerizing to watch her pursue János, who then slowly begins to pursue her back. Stork gives an extraordinary performance as Márta, her piercing, intelligent gaze sometimes shot in wordless closeup. Her eyes aren't just windows to her soul; they reveal the inner workings of a genuinely beautiful mind.
The French Oscar submission, Two of Us, also concerns a powerful bond that is initially shrouded in secrecy. It follows two retired women who live in the same apartment building and for years have been carrying on a loving, passionate relationship. Barbara Sukowa plays the bold, free-spirited Nina, who longs for their commitment to be made public. But the quieter, shyer Madeleine, played by Martine Chevallier, is reluctant to break the truth to her two grown children, whom she fears will never understand.
Tension slips into tragedy when Madeleine suffers a severe stroke, and her children hire a nurse, played by Léa Drucker, to take care of her. Nina, desperate to be with and look after the woman she loves, is left out in the cold. And because Madeleine can no longer move or speak, their relationship feels like more of a secret than ever.
What follows is an escalating power struggle between Nina and the nurse, who turns out to be both a negligent caretaker and a malicious rival. Two of Us touches on a number of issues not often seen in movies, including LGBT couples' rights, elder abuse and neglect. But it does so within the framework of a crafty domestic thriller that turns a cozy apartment into an emotional war zone.
Two of Us was mainly shot in the southern French city of Montpellier, and the director Filippo Meneghetti does a great job of cranking up the suspense in close quarters. With each new twist, he deepens our investment in Nina and Madeleine's relationship, which burns all the brighter as others threaten to snuff it out.
Because Madeleine has been robbed of speech and movement, Chevallier must act almost entirely with her eyes; it's wrenching to see her try and cling to Nina, even when she can no longer hug, only be hugged. And Sukowa, a German actress known for her collaborations with the great director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is electrifying as a woman who refuses to let sickness or bigotry stand in her way. She makes it hard not to root for Nina, even when her desperate machinations lead her into a kind of madness. Love can do that to you, in any language.