Apichatpong Weerasethakul takes his time. This is the essence of “slow cinema,” a source of pleasure for those who appreciate this subdivision of experimental film and aggravation for those who don’t. The Thai director crafts with patience, and in turn asks for patience from the viewer. The opening shot of his newest feature, Memoria, lingers on a sleeping woman for over half a minute before she is jolted awake by an abrupt boom. The pointed use of duration is crucial, as is the risk of being “boring.” Film usually tells us what is significant with noticeable stylization — swelling music, punchy editing, zooms and close-ups, etc. But what if you withhold the traditional tools? What if you strip construction down, reducing choices in cinematography mainly to framing, editing to the most deliberate cuts? Time itself becomes an active factor. That opening shot purposefully lulls the viewer, and so the sonic disruption is as jarring for them as it is for the character. That shot also contains the essence of Memoria, which studies how the inexplicable can lace eeriness into the rhythms of everyday life.
The woman is Jessica (played by Tilda Swinton), and as the booming noise recurs, she realizes only she can hear it. She’s a Scottish expat in Colombia, already estranged somewhat from her environment. The noise (an explosion? a loud crunch? an industrial thump?) punctuates the most random moments, never allowing her (or the viewer) to grow fully comfortable no matter where she is. Even if it doesn’t manifest, the possibility that it will haunts even the most mundane scene. Her investigations into the phenomenon pulls back the curtain on an entire history of ambiguous sensory maladies. Jessica’s sister is suffering a similarly ambiguous affliction that’s keeping her abed (more than a little similar to the mysterious sleeping sickness central to Weerasethakul’s previous feature, 2015’s Cemetery of Splendor). She visits with an archaeologist who notes the evidence of trepanation on the centuries-old skull of an indigenous girl — holes would be bored into the head to relieve pressure and other ills. Jessica’s fruitless search for a medical solution delves into the unnerving breadth of knowledge that remains vacant concerning the human body, particularly the brain.
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Lacking a scientific answer, Jessica explores whether she can combat the entity plaguing her by identifying it, enlisting the help of young sound engineer Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) to replicate the noise. Since Weerasethakul based both the story and the sound on his own ordeal with audial hallucinations in Colombia, this sequence is metafictional on multiple levels. The movie is tipping its hand not just as to how it conjured this hallucination, but also how it is allowing the audience to share the director’s experience. He had to go through the same process Jessica does with a real sound designer. Memoria‘s soundscape is, fittingly, sculpted with utmost precision. As the title alludes, it connects sound to memory — not just personal but collective memory, and beyond that to primeval memories of the land itself. There is no reality-based remedy in sight, and Weerasethakul is by my reckoning the foremost contemporary practitioner of cinematic magical realism. In retrospect, it’s as if the first bang Jessica hears is an assault that cracks the dam of the prosaic world, with the fantastical trickling into and amassing in the narrative as it progresses.
This shift is signaled when Jessica seeks out Hernán again, only for no one at his place of work to recognize his name or description. Her journey eventually takes her out of the city to the countryside, where she meets another, older man named Hernán (Elkin Díaz). Or maybe this is the same Hernán. Or the two are different manifestations of the same man. Or one is an echo of the other. This second Hernán says that he remembers everything to ever happen to him, but also that he never dreams. (Recalling Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious.”) When he sleeps, he appears to reach a zen-like state of peace, almost death (maybe that’s what a perfect rest is). He demonstrates to Jessica that if one listens closely enough, you can hear the events of the past. This proves the way to determine the source of the noise — and that reveal is an audacious parting shot from Weerasethakul, one last surprise from a film that refuses to go where you expect it to.
There’s a reason Hyperallergic named Memoria the best movie of this soon-to-die year. In its methodical form it articulates the intangible, if only on a subconscious level. Swinton, known for playing a host of unreal figures in her career, here instead plays a down-to-earth person unwittingly stumbling into the role of a curious skeptic. Jessica is compelled partly by the discomfort her condition inflicts upon her and partly by her increasing fascination with the realm of the unreal. This film floats at the confluence of dreams and wakefulness, of history, psychogeography, the body, the completely ineffable, and of course memory. It seems at first to be another tale about a stranger in a strange land, but Weerasethakul senses that in the contemporary world many of us are estranged from each other and the land — but there can be beautiful and unexpected methods of connection.
Memoria is now in theaters.