The perils of always trying to do the right thing are brutally examined in Retrospekt, a domestic violence drama with shades of John Cassavetes. Taking morally tricky subject matter and running it through the narrative ringer, it’s a complicated and provocative work that’s unlikely to gain many supporters. While excellently acted and ambitiously edited, its message leaves a sour taste in the mouth that is hard to shake off.
The story starts with the heavily pregnant Mette (Circé Lethem) trying on new trousers in a shop, when she hears another woman being physically abused in the stall opposite. She tries to comfort the woman, but the man returns and is verbally aggressive. Mette tries to tell her husband, Simon (Martijn van der Veen), about it, before suffering one of many mental breakdowns we will see throughout this movie.
This early scene tells you everything you need to know about Mette: she cares, and this will be her main downfall. Taking three months maternity leave to take care of her second child while her husband jettisons around Europe on business, she can’t stop thinking about one of her clients at the Domestic Abuse center, a Flemish woman named Miller (Lien Wildemeersch) who lives in constant fear of her estranged husband. Mette invites the unstable woman to stay over, but almost instantly gets into trouble when the woman tries to call her husband over. This leads to a devastating set of events explicitly telegraphed from the very start.
Told before and after this questionable decision (surely the Dutch authorities can organize a shelter?), the jerky narrative reflects Mette’s own mental state as she desperately tries to remember what led her to this unfortunate position. The editing helps to create a sense of mania, often cutting to events as they are happening. It creates a great sense of onward momentum, never letting the audience breathe, but this manic tone can be hard to sustain over an entire movie, especially as we know what will eventually happen to Mette. Retrospekt appears to take delight in its own cruelty; why bother, it asks when these women don’t want to get better?
This worldview is complemented by the strange soundtrack (featuring original tracks with baritone and soprano singing, tuba, timpani, and clavichord) lending an ironic, surreal element to Mette’s otherwise harrowing experience. Totally left-field, its a great example of how music can completely transform how one views a film. Additionally, the sound design, full of low-rumbling tones, sudden jerky noises, and high-pitched ringing, helps to stress Mette’s shattered mental state.
Nonetheless, we never really get into what drives Mette, as if she’s afraid to confront it herself. It’s evident that she has her own mental issues and maybe her own history of abuse, but these are never explored in much detail. Lethem goes for broke in the central performance, able to convey fear, resilience, and vulnerability often within the same facial expression. Yet, she deserves a story that empathizes with her character instead of setting her up for an artificial fall with a soundtrack that treats it as a lark. The discrepancy between performance and execution is disturbing.
What are we supposed to think of Mette’s behaviour? On the one hand, the illogicality of her actions speaks truer to real life than conventional decision making, as high-pressure situations can always cause people to act in the strangest of ways. On the other hand, certain events make it look like she is being blamed for her own goodness. Is this message — don’t try and stop domestic violence from happening because you could get hurt yourself – really worth promoting in a world where women are still killed daily by their aggressive husbands? Without offering any smart alternatives, Retrospekt crosses over into potentially dangerous territory very quickly. At its very worst, it’s downright irresponsible.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.