TIFF Review: 'Retrospekt'

(Netherland/Belgium, 101 min.)
Written and directed by Esther Rots
Starring: Circé Lethem, Lien Wildemeersch (Miller, Lee), Martijn van der Veen (Simon)
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
Audiences seeking a healthy dose of WTF needn’t look any further than Retrospekt. This Dutch oddity is a true original. One might classify it as the first arthouse domestic violence musical, but that doesn’t really fit the bill since nobody belts a tune onscreen in Retrospekt even though the soundtrack is layered with peculiar original songs that twist the story in myriad ways. It might sound disrespectful; it might sound stupid; it might sound awful, yet Retrospekt somehow works thanks to the fearless audacity with which writer/director Esther Rots pulls it off.

Retrospekt is a dense psychological puzzle and Rots has a lot of fun inviting viewers to piece it all together. One should be advised from the outset that the pieces don’t really fit, but that’s exactly the point. Memory is an elusive and fleeting thing. Add trauma to the mix and one can only tell a story through fits and starts, fragments and repetitions, coughs and sputters. When words don’t really make sense, one has to sound them out and find a rhythm for sentiments that can’t otherwise find expression.

What this whole introduction of gobbledygook means is that life doesn’t make any more sense in retrospect. Rots lets the audience experience the jumble of memories as Mette (Circé Lethem, who is absolutely sensational) tries to recall the events that put her in a hospital with limited mobility, impaired speech, and other serious physical and psychological damage. The origin of the ordeal is unclear, but one can assume that the scene with which Retrospekt begins is an underlying catalyst to the incident. A very pregnant Mette witnesses an altercation at a department store dressing room in which she sees a man berate and abuse his wife. Mette, who is later revealed a domestic violence support counsellor, tries to intervene and the man puts her in her place. Shaken, the altercation begins a kaleidoscopic series of encounters with toxic violent men and women who refuse to be victims.

The shards of memory twist and change shape as Rots reveals the other pieces of the story. Mette, now deflated and with a young baby, has taken in a survivor of abuse, Miller (Lien Wildemeersch), who comes to the office in search of shelter from her volatile boyfriend. As Miller visits Mette in the hospital post-accident and as Mette tries to mend Miller’s confidence pre-accident, Retrospekt circles around the truth of what happened. Countless scenarios arise as one turns over each fragment of the film and considers it. The scenes with Mette’s travelling husband, Simon (Martijn van der Veen), himself a bit too hot under the collar, build suspense and misdirection as one wonders about Mette’s (in)ability to live the same advice she gives to women at work every day. It isn’t easy to escape abusive men when they’re as ever-present as they seem to be in this corner of the Netherlands.

The glue to all these shards is the kooky soundtrack of songs by Dan Geesin. These humorous refrains offer some much-needed levity to the story as deep voices and sing-song cadences comment upon Mette’s faulty memory and the bad things men too often do to women. These songs sometimes punctuate the film with bright pink title cards, drawing out the absurdity of the situation while giving Mette the extra nudge to loosen her memory. How can anyone laugh in face of so much senseless violence? Then again, what other option does one have while trying to make sense of it all?