The most daring stylistic flourish in Esther Rots’ forensically first-person, raw-nerve drama seems at first like a mistake. Over crisp images of a happy Dutch family — bearded Dad, his pregnant, laughing wife and their blond, tousle-haired daughter driving around in a well-kitted-out camper van — a baritone sings a comic operetta, in English, about bathrobes, kitchen counters and home juicers. “In this neat and tidy little liiiife … she is a neat and tidy little wiiiife,” he booms to jaunty, parping tubas and pompous, martial percussion. The absurd, baroque stylings of Dan Geesin’s compositions are so incongruous with the pictures, it seems possible it’s the sound leaking in from the screen next door.

But while we never quite get over this dislocating effect — nor are we ever sure how closely we should be parsing the lyrics for clues to our protagonist’s state of mind — we’re not supposed to: “Retrospekt” goes further with the idea of schism than most thematically similar films about psychological breakdown. Distilled into Circé Lethem’s rock-solid performance as the traumatized Mette, Rots’ intelligent, ferociously empathetic but deeply unsentimental portrait doesn’t just use fragmentary images, nonlinear editing, and the deliberate rupture of the past into the present to evoke the smash-and-grab effect of deep shock. It also suggests, with this droll Gilbert & Sullivan-style running commentary, that there’s a part of Mette’s psyche that is trying to knit the narrative of her life back together from all the tangled skeins in her mind, and perhaps it takes this bouncy, unserious form because Mette, though injured, frightened, guilt-ridden and suffering, is not without a sense of humor.

The primary drive is to have us experience a kind of cinematic PTSD alongside present-day Mette. As editor, Rots shreds together “Mette-after,” hospitalized with a stitched-up gash on her head and a tendency to look for the word “Thursday” and find “coffee” instead, with “Mette-before.” The earlier version may ostensibly be a caregiver and the lynchpin of a stable family unit, but she has dark, unacknowledged instincts for which the film is not afraid to hold her to account, even as she shies away from doing so herself.

There’s a hint the trouble arises partly out of Mette’s boredom during her second maternity leave, her midlife unfulfillment, and perhaps even a mild dose of postpartum depression. Escaping the tranquil confines of her comfortably modernist home (favored by the clean lines of DP Lennert Hillege’s cool-toned photography) she goes for a visit to her workplace, a center for victims of domestic abuse. She displays a very relatable frisson of disappointment that her temporary replacement is doing her job so well.

But she also overhears that there have been developments in one of her old cases. Outside any official capacity, she contacts Miller (a firecracker turn by Lien Wildemeersch), a mercurial young woman trapped in an on-and-off-but-always-toxic relationship with her violent boyfriend, Frank (Teun Luijkx). Miller, or Lee Miller “like Man Ray’s muse!” as she introduces herself theatrically, is undoubtedly the victim of that form of Stockholm syndrome that affects battered wives, but she is also fundamentally unbalanced and a little in love with the havoc that her high-drama relationship can wreak.

She swears that this time she’s done with him for good, if only she could find a safe place to lie low for a spell. With Mette’s husband (Martijn Van Der Veen), who would certainly not approve of this dangerous young woman being around his children, away on business, Mette brings Miller to stay with her a while.

The film achieves well its ratcheting structural tension, as the hospitalized Mette reluctantly picks her way through the rubble of her broken memories toward the point of impact. At the same time it’s a clever refocusing: putting complicated, multifaceted women back at the center of a domestic violence narrative that might have more safely portrayed them as saintly victims. And it is also a psychologically rich profile of a strangely co-dependent female relationship and of the pathology not just of abuse victim Miller but of Mette. There’s a kind of Munchausen syndrome at work, with Mette’s own sense of self somehow wrapped up in the deeply ego-driven idea that she’s able to “fix” those less capable — if anything the shock when this belief is revealed to be ill-founded is just as traumatic as her physical injuries.

It is not an easy watch, and the arch contrast between the intelligent seriousness of the themes and that frankly wacky soundtrack may prove off-putting for those who like their films to occupy one register alone. But it is also a truly risky stylistic choice that Rots, in only her second feature, commits to completely, making “Retrospekt” a fascinating experience of cinematic dysphasia.

Berlin Film Review: ‘Retrospekt’

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 11, 2019. Running time: 101 MIN.

  • Production: (Netherlands-Belgium) A Rots Filmwerk and Column Film production in co-production with Serendipity Films with the support of Het Nederlands Filmfonds and Netherlands Film Production Incentive. (Int'l sales: Rots Filmwerk, Amsterdam.) Producers: Hugo Rots, Esther Rots, Gijs van de Westelaken, Chantal van der Horst. Co-producer: Ellen De Waele.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Esther Rots. Camera (color, widescreen): Lennert Hillege. Editor: Esther Rots. Music: Dan Geesin.
  • With: Circé Lethem, Lien Wildemeersch, Martijn van der Veen, Teun Luijkx, Lottie Hellingman. (Dutch, Flemish, French, English dialogue)