There’s a scene in Memoria, the spellbinding new film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in which Tilda Swinton’s Jessica struggles to describe a sound that she’s been hearing in her head, owing to many sleepless nights and involuntary shudders. She describes it to a sound engineer who, in between puzzled expressions, tries to replicate the sound. “It’s like a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall… surrounded by seawater… more metallic… but earthier.”
After seeing Memoria, audiences may find themselves similarly tongue-tied, explaining a film that proudly avoids strict interpretation. Apichatpong – best known for his Palme d’Or prize winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – has never been fond of plot, preferring to let his enigmatic images and hypnotic pacing lull audiences into a state of wonder and meditation.
Granted, this description may be putting you to sleep already – but that’s where Apichatpong has you beat. The film opens up with Jessica, quietly asleep in bed until… BOOM!, “the sound” jolts her upright, while hooking the attention of each cinema-goer in the process. These disturbances don’t only occur at night; they plague Jessica throughout her journey of Columbia. She has come to Bogotá to visit her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke), who’s in hospital suffering from an unexplained illness.
What follows plays out like a detective mystery, albeit one which deliberately tries to disrupt the genre at every turn. Like a seasoned gumshoe, Jessica starts pounding the pavement and looking for answers: she meets up with her husband, recruits the help of the aforementioned sound engineer, and even manages to befriend an archaeologist along the way. When every clue leads to a dead end Jessica visits a doctor. She asks for Xanax to help her sleep but is prescribed a healthy dose of Jesus instead – you know you’re in trouble when your doctor recommends miracles over medicine.
Memoria is powered by Apichatpong’s signature style; his quiet, meticulous brand of filmmaking is captivating from the start. He doesn’t opt for coverage or editing, often happy just to set up a wide shot and watch the magic unspool. Lucky for Swinton, she doesn’t need close-ups. Her delicate, subtle performance beautifully compliments the auteur’s poetic approach. Her scenes opposite Elkin Díaz (Hernán), in particular, are riveting and strikingly profound – dare I call them moments of pure cinema?
Of course, Swinton and Diaz aren’t the only stars of Memoria. Much like his previous films, Apichatpong foregrounds the environment which characters inhabit in order to create a dreamlike atmosphere. Ambient sounds are amplified to the point that they become unnatural, disturbing even. The undulating rhythms of nature: the buzzing of insects, a breeze across grass, the trickling of water, all combine to form a world of intensifying pressure.
As to what all this pressure is building towards, you’ll have to see it to believe it. What I can say is that whether you’re a longtime admirer of Apichatpong or entering his world for the first time, Memoria will make an impact. Maybe it won’t be sudden, but like the sound haunting Jessica, its vibration will resonate in your head long after the closing credits.
It’s a film that asks plenty of questions – not so we can come up with the answers but so we can keep asking. So go to the movie theatre and ask. Ask until you’re feeling lightheaded, as if afloat in deep thought, because where better to be set adrift than in a dark room, surrounded by strangers and big ideas.