Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been a stalwart of the arthouse circuit since his Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or back in 2010. The Thai independent filmmaker has returned with Memoria, a beguiling and hypnotic and occasionally boring piece of work.
Touted inaccurately as Weerasethakul’s first English language film, Memoria is set in Colombia and is mostly in Spanish. Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, an expat who wakes up when she hears something go bump in the night. And not just bump. It is a profound and disturbing noise. At first, she doesn’t think too much of it. After all, her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) is in hospital with one of those unspecified sleeping illnesses that Weerasethakul seems so fond of: see Cemetery of Splendour. However the noise repeats itself again and again. And she realises that it not only shifts with her but is also apparently exclusive to her, or at least only her and certain individuals.
This intriguing premise gives what could be described as the narrative drive of the film and will have the very patient enthralled. But it has to be said immediately that the long takes, the silent ellipses will be too much for many. In fact, at some points the sudden booming sound had an almost humorous effect of waking you up. This feels entirely intended. The sound could be the pounding arrival of some doom, foretelling the apocalypse: it could be the heavy tread of some rough beast slouching its way towards Bethlehem. It could be an intruder at the door, an intimation of mortality.
Jessica investigates, first by getting a sound engineer Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) to recreate the noise and in so doing suggests that perhaps all art is about recreating dreamed-of noises and visions. Following a visit to a doctor who’s more into Jesus than medicine, Jessica encounters another Hernán (Elkin Diaz), a man who has never seen a film, or listened to music, or even left his village because he remembers everything and could be the solution to the mysterious sound.
Memoria is gloriously weird and it has that most magical quality of making you look at things in a totally different way. There are shots of skies towards the end of the film which you look at from a totally different perspective from the way you might have regarded similar shots at the beginning. Likewise, it will make you attentive to sound in a strange new way. Yes, Weerasethakul’s films may put you to sleep. But within that sleep, there are dreams and awakenings that are valuable and lasting. This goes beyond the simple idea of meaning and there might be the suspicion that when you get down to it there is no real there there, but that in itself might be a very profound realisation.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty