Tilda Swinton joins forces with acclaimed Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul for this moving and meditative must-see, and the results are glorious.
April 07, 2022
When Memoria begins, it echoes with a thud that's not only booming and instantly arresting — a clamour that'd make anyone stop and listen — but is also deeply haunting. It arrives with a noise that, if the movie's opening scene was a viral clip rather than part of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's spectacular Cannes Jury Prize-winning feature, it'd be tweeted around with a familiar message: sound on. The racket wakes up Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton, The Souvenir: Part II) in the night, and it's soon all that she can think about; like character, like film. It's a din that she later describes as "a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well which is surrounded by seawater"; however, that doesn't help her work out what it is, where it's coming from or why it's reverberating. The other question that starts to brood: is she the only one who can hear it?
So springs a feature that's all about listening, and truly understands that while movies are innately visual — they're moving pictures, hence the term — no one should forget the audio that's gone with it for nearly a century now. Watching Weerasethakul's work has always engaged the ears intently, with the writer/director behind the Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and just-as-lyrical Cemetery of Splendour crafting cinema that genuinely values all that the filmic format can offer. Enjoying Memoria intuitively serves up a reminder of how crucial sound can be to the big-screen experience, emphasising the cavernous chasm between pictures that live and breathe that truth and those that could simply be pictures. Of course, feasting on Weerasethakul's films has also always been about appreciating not only cinema in all its wonders, but as an inimitable art form. Like the noise that lingers in his protagonist's brain here, his movies aren't easily forgotten.
With Weerasethakul behind the lens and Swinton on-screen, Memoria is a match made in cinephile heaven — even before it starts obsessing over sound and having its audience do the same. He helms movies like no one else, she's an acting force of nature, and their pairing is film catnip. He also makes his English-language debut, as well as his first feature outside of Thailand, while she brings the serenity and magnetism that only she can, turning in a far more understated turn than seen in the recent likes of The French Dispatch and The Personal History of David Copperfield. Yes, Weerasethakul and Swinton prove a beautiful duo. Weerasethakul makes contemplative, meditative, visually poetic movies, after all, and Swinton's face screams with all those traits. They're both devastatingly precise in what they do, too, and also delightfully expressive. And, they each force you to pay the utmost attention to their every single choice as well.
As Jessica, Swinton plays a British expat in Colombia — an orchidologist born in Scotland, residing in Medellín and staying in Bogota when she hears that very specific din. After explaining it in exquisite detail to sound engineer Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego, My Father), he tries to recreate the noise for her, but only she seems to know exactly what it sounds like. At the same time, Jessica's sister Karen (debutant Agnes Brekke) is in hospital with a strange ailment. Also, there's word of a curse that's linked to a tunnel being built over a burial ground, and Jessica consults with an archaeologist (Jeanne Balibar, Les Misérables) before heading from the city to the country. Grief echoes as strongly through Jessica's life as the bang she can't shake, and she wanders like someone in a dreamy daze, whether she's roaming around an art gallery or crossing paths with a rural fisherman also called Hernán (Elkin Díaz, Besieged).
No plot description can ever do Weerasethakul's films justice, and Memoria doesn't even consider tying its various threads in an obvious way. Rather, it invites viewers to unlock its puzzles by soaking in every patient 35-millimetre shot and exacting sound, and it's a mesmerising cinematic experience. Part of the film's hypnotic thrall stems from the connections gleaned, too, especially for the filmmaker's fans. Sleep, one of his favourite topics, is inescapable. Spying the hospital-set scenes and not thinking of Cemetery of Splendour is impossible. In the movie's latter sections, when it revels in the Colombian countryside, it's just as difficult not to recall Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. And there is indeed another past that's being conjured up here, separate from Weerasethakul's cinematic background (plus the fact that Memoria's lead is named after 1943 voodoo horror I Walked with a Zombie): that of its setting, its history of violence and the shadow that remains today.
How the past, present and future bleed into each other — or drip like water falling into a well, then pool together — sits at the heart of Memoria. That too isn't new for Weerasethakul, but he can't be accused of repeating himself. He also ponders what sticks and fades, and how and why. Witnessing its two Hernán sequences, both of which are sublime in their own fashions, cements this train of thought. In the first, the young audio engineer searches his database of movie sound effects, trying to locate something universal to match a noise that's clearly so personal to Jessica — and observing their to and fro, absurdity included, ranks among the best scenes Weerasethakul has given cinema. In the second, which is loaded with queries about whether the two men with the shared name are one and the same or alternate versions, how life can resemble a mere reverie gets thrust to the fore amid spellbindingly vivid greenery.
They aren't straightforward, but there are answers in Memoria. Better than that, there's a powerful and provocative commitment to surprising and challenging that resounds right down to the movie's final glorious reveal. We catalogue and contemplate the past in a plethora of ways, and shifting, shattering and distorting is a natural consequence, as Weerasethakul tells us with his intoxicating frames and soundscape. He gets stunning help from cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Suspiria, Call Me By Your Name and also plenty of Weerasethakul's work) and sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr (another of the filmmaker's veterans), because his features are always technical powerhouses — but being on Swinton's ethereal wavelength is essential. She's the audience's guide through a beguiling mystery, her director's surrogate in this quest through Colombia, and an anchor in an achievement that feels like just what the best cinema is meant to: a dream with our eyes and ears wide open.
Top image: Sandro Kopp © Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF-Arte and Piano, 2021
Concrete Playground Trips
Book unique getaways and adventures dreamed up by our editors