With its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Dutch filmmaker Esther Rots’ sophomore feature Retrospekt is an extraordinary accomplishment and one of the standouts of this year’s Contemporary World Cinema programe. The film begins humbly enough and – based on the plot synopsis alone – indicates at first what might be a relatively pedestrian drama about a domestic violence counsellor who loses sight of the boundaries between her professional and personal life when she invites a client into her own home. What this summary misses, however, is the deeply thoughtful and formally ambitious way that Mette’s story is told, both through Rots’ own deft and masterful directorial hand and grounded by an incredible performance by Circe Lethem as the complex central character.
Weaving back and forth in time, we meet Mette at different stages of the film living through two initially distinct storylines told out of chronological order. In one, she is bored and frustrated with what she feels is forced extended maternity leave, inflicted on her by a husband she feels has dismissed her career over his. The second is even more grueling as she is shown recovering both physically and emotionally in rehab after a serious accident, the cause of which becomes clear as the film moves forward and the two narrative threads intersect.
Tying the two together is Lee (Lien Wildemeersch), a woman who has experienced the long-term effects of domestic violence at the hands of her partner but has fallen through the cracks of the system. At first, the film appears almost ambivalent to Lee’s plight, but as the story becomes more complex it is revealed that Lee is far from a two-dimensional stereotype of what might be commonly conceived to be the ‘typical’ victim of domestic violence: she is flawed, she is contradictory, she is erratic, and she even has criminal tendencies in which she involves Mette’s young daughter.
Rather than demonizing Lee, however, what Retrospekt achieves with such impressive confidence is a powerful critique of Mette’s own saviour complex: at the heart of the film lies not an attack on Lee (impressively, it underscores how she can be both complicated and a victim) but on Mette’s own arrogance and her fundamental assumption that she is somehow immune to the grim, brutal reality that women like Lee and her other clients face every day.
Rots is unrelenting in her clarity and focus on the minutia Mette’s story, and the scenes where she struggles to grasp the severity of her misjudgement as she works through the simultaneous heartbreak and banality of rehab are in their own way as difficult, upsetting and as thought-provoking as the actual scenes of domestic violence themselves. Retrospekt is a challenging film that refuses to take the easy way out in its deep dive into this urgent and topical subject, and its adamant rejection of cliché and stereotype in favour of exploring contradictions and complexities make it challenging yet important viewing experience.