Berlinale 2019 Review: Retrospekt (Esther Rots)

A fragmented look at a woman who is both losing her grip on an unraveling life, and in retrospect trying to figure out if it could have been prevented, Esther Rots’ sophomore effort Retrospekt is a film that requires hard work from the viewer, and work that might not pay off completely, at that – though undoubtedly a rewarding experience. Jumping back and forth to moments before and after a traumatic event in the protagonist’s life, Retrospekt often bewilders an audience that tries to make sense of it all and might zone out before the 100-minute running time is over. Yet, nine years after her stunning debut Can Go Through Skin, Rots shows that battered and bruised women, both literally and figuratively, are again an inspiration for a psychological analysis of the human mind.

Domestic abuse counselor Mette (Circé Lethem, in a strong performance of great range) is dedicated to her work, perhaps even too much so. Married to Simon (Martijn van der Veen), she has a young pre-teen daughter, Harrie, and a new baby girl. When Simon’s job requires him to leave the country for a long period of time, he expects Mette to take an extended maternity leave to help adjust Harrie to the idea of having a baby sister. During this period, and unbeknownst to Simon, Mette’s client and friend Lee Miller (Lien Wildemeersch) moves in with her, hiding from her abusive partner.

Meanwhile, car accident victim Mette is recovering from a trauma that has affected both her body and her psyche to a great extent. Working through her physical limitations is hard and her husband Simon’s visits are an emotional and psychological drain. Yes, this is the same Mette. Her friendly banter and warm friendship with another patient cannot hide the fact that she is struggling. With the aftermath of the accident, with getting used to the idea of a radically changed life, but also with the large ‘what if’ stomping through her mind. What path led to this tragic incident, and could she have prevented it? Or was she maybe the cause of it?

In two clear chronological paragraphs it all looks simple, but Rots tells Mette’s story in a jumbled roller coaster of emotions and flashbacks, shards of memory trying to trace a narrative along with Mette’s efforts to find hers. We are as much in the dark as she is while she tries to glue together the shattered fragments of her life leading up to the traumatic event. Postnatal depression, an uncooperative husband, a manipulative friend dealing with her own abuse. And in the midst of it all, Mette frantically working to keep it all together and to put it all together. Retrospekt slowly reveals its story as the before and after converge into the final scene (not counting a short epilogue) showing us what actually happened and where blame may ultimately lie. But the blame game is not the game Rots is playing.

What she aims at is showing how easy it is to fall into the trap of trust. Trust in a husband, trust in a friendship, trust in the way things appear to be, trust in one’s own strength. Trust until it is too late and everything starts to fall apart, because we have been deluding ourselves that we have it all under control while we can so easily slip into the mistakes of others, mistakes that we can recognize in them but not in ourselves. Happiness is hard to find in Rots’ world, as was the case in her debut. It is therefore interesting to see Retrospekt bookended by its most blissful scenes, scenes that indeed start and end the narrative, although one has to wonder if the joyful conclusion is real or just in Mette’s head.

Retrospekt’s structure, or perhaps more fittingly ‘destructure’, does not make for an easy viewing though, and when it finally reaches the conclusion it is somewhat unsatisfactory because the execution is messy and hurried. It seems Rots is more interested in the process of dealing with trauma, and her approach to that is a very sensory experience, with sound design and camerawork often a reflection of Mette’s state of mind. The baroque pieces of opera that serve as chapter demarcations are an unfortunate choice, and while Lethem delivers exemplary work the rest of the cast is not as strong. The most disappointing aspect of Retrospekt is that by putting the event that the whole film paradoxically centers around all the way at the end and then shortselling in this fashion, the director robs the film of the catharsis that it was clearly building towards. Trapped in the way the film’s narrative mimics the emotional and psychological state of its protagonist, in itself a laudable and successful approach, the ending that should be a bang becomes a bit of a whimper. Still, Retrospekt shows Rots’ talent for visceral and intelligent cinema, and while it requires stamina, the film is a fascinating look into trauma and people’s inability to see the danger in themselves.