By Yun-hua Chen.
With a puzzle plotline that resembles Memento, Retrospekt focuses on two women, Mette and Lee Miller, whose life at home is tumultuous in different ways. Mette, very convincingly portrayed by Circé Lethem, is on parental leave after having her second child. Her husband is not as family-centered and children-oriented as she would like. She also misses the feeling of being needed, having worked for a center for victims of domestic violence. Out of this need and her rescue fantasy, she offers Lee Miller, a former client in crisis, to live with her during her husband’s absence. When both women’s partners appear in their already strained duo-relationship, the situation escalates and their roles start to reverse.
With the climax, Retrospekt is interwoven by a chronological narrative for events before the incident and a reverse chronological order of events after – these two strands meeting at the end of the film. The film’s form, which highlights fragmentation, puzzle, and fracture, neatly corresponds to the film’s content, which focuses on reconstruction of oneself for both women after a traumatic experience. What really happens is pieced together and understood through a far-from-straightforward route and, consequently, there are multiple ways of reading into them. Meanwhile, the soundtrack, especially written for the film and full of self-mockery and irony, possesses another timeline itself.
Esther Rots (Director) and Dan Geesin (Director of Sound) talked to us about the film and sound puzzles.
Yun-hua Chen (YHC): Retrospekt’s narrative structure in terms of temporality is quite striking. There is one timeline that goes forward and one timeline that goes backwards and they meet at the end. Do you want to talk about your choice of puzzle narrative?
Esther Rots (ER): It gradually evolved that way. In the film we had the accident in the middle of the film at a certain point, so you work to the accident and from the accident, and then the accident worked as some kind of torment from God. It is really funny because images in themselves didn’t change at all, but the whole interpretation in it now feels like the celestial wrath and that’s totally not what we intended. We struggled with the things that we had and tried to find a way for the film to start speaking the way that we wanted.
YHC: The film viewing process for the audience involves reconstruction of the puzzle. Did you choose this structure to make a point about domestic violence?
ER: The structure was not needed to portray domestic violence. The structure was needed to project Mette’s crippled way of thinking. The whole film is coming from her perspective.
Dan Geesin (DG): And emotional trajectory as well, and this idea of entropy and inevitable collision. Even if Mette wanted to stop her own collision, she couldn’t. She needed it. In some way this is a sort of some strange catharsis for something to go through in order to remedy her perspective.
ER: Because the film is 100% her perspective, her retrospect. That’s why it worked so well. Our editing worked along emotions. We either looked for similar emotions to follow up or we were looking for clashing. The film was edited with that in mind. When you trigger memories, especially when you have a shattered brain like she does, it is triggered by emotions, not so much the actual timeline, chronology, but maybe just a sense of things. During the editing process we have been playing around the order of images a lot but there is only one slot for every image that you see. It might feel random, but it’s not random at all. From my hindsight the whole process of when something works and when something doesn’t work is very interesting.
DG: When you change one part, it affects everything. Finding the balance and the equilibrium within the whole structure is like doing a puzzle. A mixture of drama, different lines, sound and dialogue that effectively create a film.
ER: Her perspective, her being. What we want to tell as filmmakers.
YHC: And this balance of puzzle was found at the scriptwriting stage?
DG: It started at the scriptwriting stage and was exploited further and developed further throughout the process of making.
ER: But the script was not accepted until we got all the fragmented parts. It has to be a complete storyline, so we made the script as clear as it could be, without the jumping back and forth, and then we have the director statement which explains the theory of what it would be like. It wouldn’t work if you try to juggle around different pieces of work in a script.
YHC: It’s a lot of brain work.
ER: An excel sheet, lots of excel sheets.
YHC: It’s a film about domestic violence, but we don’t see any violence on screen.
DG: That’s the power of cinema, isn’t it? Imply and suggest.
ER: The fear of violence always composes maybe 80% of the violence itself already. It’s the abuse and the threat, it’s the terrorism even, maybe it doesn’t even have to be one, just the whole thing around it. Maybe it’s just as powerful or more powerful. In America there is this dossier which states how to torture people effectively. There were a few pointers, one of them instructing to try to postpone the first pain as much as possible because it would come as a relief. The fear of pain is much more effective than pain itself. Anticipation of and fear of pain is stronger than pain itself. The feelings of inevitability of pain. People break more readily like that.
YHC: How did you decide to juxtapose tragic moments in images and comical relief in the soundtrack? There is something frictional in the juxtaposition between image and sound.
DG: You have realism in the image and you have this fairy tale in the music.
ER: What we were looking for is to show unrest, which Mette experiences and many people in her generation too, this sense of purposelessness and some kind of void inside you, some kind of unrest. We want to show it in the grand scheme of things. Mette has severe problems. Her father is dying from cancer. Lee Miller has severe problems. They are real and they are all-consuming problems, heartbreaking problems, but we wanted to show the human trouble in some kind of theatrical sense, absurd way. Once again it’s Mette’s hindsight. She is trying to fix herself, she is trying to evolve herself. So, she needs this self-reflection, self-mockery, and that’s what we try to do with the music. To take it out of this really sad personal experience.
DG: Having said that, music is saturated with this strange, personal, sad, torments, which are very real, and this idea that the work is made to assist, but absolutely not to illustrate; the music is made on a parallel trajectory to the film. During the same time that the script was being written, some of the songs were being written. Esther and I have worked so long together. We use life, the same stuff you could say, but different, from very different perspectives. Not just a man and a woman, but also different personalities and different perspectives. And they come together in the film.
YHC: The development of the two women characters was very interesting. There was the reversal and becoming of the other person process going on.
ER: Mette needs to be needed. She helps out of her selfish need to help. That backfires. It’s never a good thing to project the wishful thinking that I help you and then life will be fine. No, because you got your own shit to take care of. It’s like avoiding her own problems.
DG: She avoids her own imbalances in her domestic life with her own family by trying to fix someone else’s problems.
ER: This is one of the things I like about this film. It portrays how easy it is to see other people’s problems and how blind one can be for one’s own problems. At the same time I think Lee Miller knows this and exploits this, and Lee Miller is quite a clever manipulative character.
YHC: How was the film received? Have you shown this film to women who suffer from domestic violence in an association for example?
ER: The reception of the film goes both ways. The one is that it is dangerous to show those women who are partially to blame for the violence that men impose upon. The other one is, finally there is a film that doesn’t portray women as victims. Those are the two antipoles. Me personally, I don’t know why but I think there are so many films made of women who are labelled as something simple. The more hormones that label contains the better. It ticks me off because this story for me is not only about women. It is more universal. It is about time and about this problem that has been hovering.
DG: In a way there is probably more violence going on with the relationship between Lee Miller and Mette. Psychologically and also how Mette is being pulled in a way that she doesn’t expect and then is exposed to real physical danger.
ER: What the film also tries is not to have an opinion about relationships. Loads of men who are in a violence relationship. Women can also be perpetrators of violence. Most of them are quite bluntly wrong. But it’s not always the case. I don’t like saying you are to blame or you are to blame. With your mouth you can be sharp as a razor, but you don’t have to be violent. Everything you see has second, third or fourth layers that you have no ideas about, but people are so quick in making up their minds and expressing their minds. It’s really weird. What I would like for this film is to show how a few people try to make it the best they can and they are flawed. All of them are flawed, men or women.
YHC: The film is as much about toxic friendship as about domestic violence.
Dan Geesin: Exactly. It’s really important that you have picked up on that.
YHC: As women filmmaker, did you feel that you have encountered difficulties in the industry? What are your thoughts on the Berlinale’s commitment to gender equality signed by Dieter Kosslick this year?
DG: Holland is a relatively privileged environment for women filmmakers. Not that it should be considered privilege, it should just be normal. The way it should be. It’s quite an equal playing field, relatively. It’s not much of an issue.
ER: Having said that, there are a few things but I don’t see that as women filmmakers but I see that as women managers maybe that some things are just not very accepted for women. Women are very easily seen as bitches or rude just because they keep the quality up. There is this beautiful article about some complaints about scientists. Out of the twelve complaints, ten of them targeted on women. And then when you read them, the complaints were, she shouted at me, there was verbal abuse, but most of those accused scientists were women. If a male scientist shouts at you for not doing the job, you think, shit, I didn’t do my job. If a female scientist says the same thing, it would not be perceived in the same way. So, that, I do experience. I think, when I ask people something, it’s easier to be misinterpreted.
DG: I have always said to Esther that you need to speak to the people in business the way that you speak to me. You need to be as straightforward and as honest as with me in the business world. Take your behavior from the home environment and put it in the business world. When you have a good relationship, it’s more equal, so you speak your mind.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.