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TORONTO 2018 Contemporary World Cinema

Review: Retrospekt

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- TORONTO 2018: Dutch director Esther Rots delivers a fragmented, elliptical fairy tale set in the present day, about a hurting heroine who must survive looking back on a traumatic event

Review: Retrospekt
Circé Lethem and Lien Wildemeersch in Retrospekt

Dutch filmmaker Esther Rots’ first short films, Play With Me (2002) and I Sprout (2003), competed at the Cannes Film Festival, while her debut feature, the elliptical drama Can Go Through Skin [+see also:
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]
(2009), premiered in the Berlinale Forum. After a nine-year break, Rots has written, directed, edited and co-produced Retrospekt [+see also:
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, her sophomore feature, which has had its world premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival.

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While Mette (Circé Lethem) is enjoying her holidays with her husband Simon (Martijn van der Veen) and her five-year-old daughter, she witnesses a violent dispute between a couple. Despite the fact she is pregnant, she decides to intervene. After an accident, Mette is in a rehabilitation centre, and she is in fact in a wheelchair when Miller (Lien Wildemeersch) pays her a visit. She insists on convincing her to testify against Frank, who is responsible for her paralysation. Mette, who is on maternity leave, has constant arguments with Simon about whose duty it is to raise their baby, as he prioritises his job over everything else. She feels neglected and lacks empathy towards her newborn baby. Mette dreams of being a tram driver. As a domestic-violence counsellor, she realises that the centre can’t protect one of her clients, Miller, who is being abused by Frank. Mette decides to host Miller despite the possible catastrophic consequences.

These are the main jigsaw pieces of the fragmented and elliptical story contained in Retrospekt, which is told in a non-linear and non-chronological order. A random selection of crucial stages in Mette’s life are depicted on a blank, retrospective canvas, where past memories and present-day events are scattered all around her. The main storyline is divided into two interconnected parts that narrate proceedings in a reverse time lapse, leading up to a cathartic ending. Through Mette’s face, brought to life by a subtle performance from Lethem, the various periods of her life intertwine in a perplexing but well-structured jigsaw puzzle. She struggles to find a reason to exist, forced to deal with motherhood, work issues and her role as a wife, all at the same time, though none of these elements can offer her a purpose in life. When all control is seemingly lost, she withdraws into herself psychologically, striving to find her inner self and successfully rehabilitate. This is also the point when Retrospekt goes beyond a merely personal illustration of Mette’s story and reaches out to a wider audience through its various parallelisms.

The experience is enhanced by what Rots describes as sensory cinema. Through her method, in which the visual aspect is deliberately confusing and initially incoherent, the director aims to offer an interpretation of her heroine’s life events by putting her feelings on display. She also engages the viewer, inviting him or her to be part of this process of exposure, thus bringing both the audience and the protagonist into the same emotional space. The blend of reality and illusion, along with the depiction of Mette’s subconscious thoughts, is illustrated by Lennert Hillege’s whirlwind-like camerawork, while Dan Geesin’s haunting sound design in conjunction with his eerie operatic pop songs and music serves to bridge the disjointed elements of the story.

Rots succeeds in creating an absurd, poetic fairy tale, which, despite being immersed in tragedy, retains a sense of humour. Her film, set in a realistic but somewhat blurry everyday environment, prompts the viewer to let go both emotionally and mentally.

Retrospekt is a Dutch-Belgian co-production by Hugo Rots, Esther Rots (Rots Filmwerk), Gijs van de Westelaken and Chantal van der Horst (Column Film), with Ellen De Waele (Serendipity Films).

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