Reviews Short Narrative

Retina (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Niels Veenendaal

Writer: Niels Veenendaal

Cast: Jacob de Groot & Annelieke Joosten

Running time: 15mins

There has been a tendency over the last 20 years in particular to glamorise the apocalypse. In a world where we are subjected to an eternal beat-the-clock exercise, having to flog our under-valued labour in ever larger quantities for ever smaller rewards, to meet ever tightening deadlines for rent and resource payments, it’s easy to understand the allure of the end of the world. Do what you want, go where you like, survive on your own terms – it’s the libertarian fantasy which can never be delivered by the economic system libertarian ideology actually champions.

The problem is, these fantasies do not end with the creation of a new egalitarian society – rather, they occur in a situation where social relations also break down. While this might give rise for some momentary relief from a life of exploitation, or grant some base desire for autonomy, it will also leave a vacuum where there was once at least some means for support or security from other human beings. The 2020 pandemic has shone the cold light of day on this fact; most societies whose governments folded under the pressure of Covid-19 have not spent the global health crisis hiding out at The Winchester, cramming monkey-nuts into their faces as they “wait for all this to blow over.” Rather, amid the terrifying realisation that they are incredibly vulnerable at this time, people have prepared for the end times by hording enough TP to last six life-times of shit, and hanging timidly on every word of advice from a serial-fibber hermetically sealed in 10 Downing Street who seems to want their grandparents to die.

One of the most interesting things about Niels Veenendaal’s fictional short Retina is the creeping terror which it promotes, as its protagonists become increasingly aware of how exposed they have become in the absence of human society. Olivier and Fleur – a couple on the brink of buying a house and entering the rat race in the Netherlands – initially approach the deaths of seemingly every other human being in the world with a kind of gleeful abandon; the kind which might not have been uncommon among young people at the start of the coronavirus crisis. After all, in the now deserted world of abundance that they find themselves in, food and shelter just became readily available in a way their generation are unlikely to have seen.

As the days pass by, however, Olivier (Jacob de Groot) becomes increasingly wary at the situation – especially as a tooth-ache he has been carrying since before the collapse of society begins to worsen. Rather than address his concern that his tooth needs attention – without anaesthetic other perks of professional medical care modern society would have provided – he begins to nag Fleur that now might be the time to start a family. Like many other couples looking to paper over the cracks in a shaky relationship with the birth of a child, he seems insistent that she should have to undergo the dangerous and painful process of giving birth – also in the absence of modern medicine.

Fleur (Annelieke Joosten) is understandably not too hot on the prospect, and may not have been whether or not there was ready access to healthcare expertise. Olivier does not take the rebuff well though, suddenly drawing our attention to just how precarious Fleur’s position is in a world without a community to support her in her choices to use her body as she pleases. As Olivier storms past her, there is a horrific moment where we are left to wonder if he would commit to violence in a world where he would face neither a fight, nor consequences for doing so.

In a film which has carried a rather sunny disposition until its mid-point, it’s a chilling drop in tone – and while the film turns around again to deliver a more optimistic outcome in its ending, as our two characters stare out wondering “what should we do next,” it is clear that both of them are aware their future health and wellbeing still hangs in the balance, without the prospect of help. It’s certainly food for thought in a world where we all too casually pray for the end-times, without thinking whether we should be careful of what we wish for.

Both De Groot and Joosten are excellent in their respective roles, meanwhile, highlighting the hopes and fears they both face in this unknown future. When we first meet De Groot’s Olivier, he comes across as self-obsessed, and clearly under-values Fleur in their relationship, remaining distant and unengaged. Joosten as Fleur meanwhile comes across consistently as being too young at heart, and fails to grasp the gravity of the situation. Both are reunited out of a necessity for socialisation and support, the two appear to have grown to understand the dangers they both face – however the ambivalent faces of the pair mean it seems ambiguous whether they have truly grown to survive in this new world, or simply kicked the can down the road.

On top of this compelling, ambiguous pairing, on a technical basis, the film is drop-dead gorgeous. The input of director of photography Thomas Leur is worth its weight in gold – using a stunning palette of autumnal colours the soft glow of the cooling sun to accentuate the core concern facing the characters. Winter is clearly on the way in the short term – and the pair will need to support each other to make it through the harsh months ahead. This visual cue echoes the broader long-term issue the couple face; they can only live on scavenged food for so long before they will need to sustain themselves, and they will also need to prepare for the medical crises their advancing years will bring. The film’s final shot is not bathed in the warmth of the setting sun as some of the earlier, more upbeat scenes, are – the grey sky further leaving it up for interpretation as to whether Fleur and Olivier have what it takes to survive their literal or figurative winter.

While thematically, Retina is highly accomplished, however, one area Veenendaal’s film is found a little lacking is the characters’ engagement with their literal surroundings. In a world where everyone has dropped dead without warning, Fleur and Olivier are more than a little gung ho when it comes to moving around the corpses that litter the ground around them.

Seemingly unconcerned that the bodies might be harbouring some lethal virus, they bound past the cadavers lying face down in every building they enter – never once stopping to wonder just what it was that caused their sudden demise. Considering there is no explanation offered for what the deaths it might have been a good idea for the characters to idly speculate on the matter. As it is, they scarcely interface with the situation on even a surface level – something which makes it that little bit more difficult for viewers to suspend their disbelief when it comes to a plot-point that is already quite a stretch to swallow.

Retina is a highly accomplished and fresh take on post-apocalyptic fantasy – leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether it really would be a dream or a nightmare to suddenly be removed from the trappings and benefits of modern life. What Niels Veenendaal’s short doesn’t deliver in world-building, it makes up for in sumptuous imagery, and short, sharp shocks of emotion, which pierce through an initially upbeat script to leave us wondering what is coming next.

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