Memoria (2021)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | 2hr 16min

The silences ridden through Memoria could go on for thirty seconds, a minute, or five minutes, but at a certain point during these stretches, time begins to disappear altogether, and a realisation begins to dawn – these are not silences at all. There is an aural effervescence carrying through almost every second of the film, lulling us into a meditative state through the rustling of leaves or the trickling of a creek, and then every so often slapping us out of it with a sudden eruption of noise. Indeed, Memoria is a film obsessed with the dissection, manipulation of, and submission to sound, and its representation of… what exactly?

In the attempts of Tilda Swinton’s Scottish expatriate, Jessica, to trace the source of a mysterious sonic boom that only she can perceive, she is led down an enigmatic path. She describes the noise as “a rumble from the core of the Earth” or “a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater”, trying to connect it to the ground beneath her feet and material objects, much like those archaeologists working on a nearby dig site who pursue tangible, historical truths. Like so many of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films though, such concrete resolutions aren’t so easily attained, as the places we are taken to often remain in some liminal, psychological space that can only be manifested in delicate soundscapes, some depicting natural environments, and others entirely unearthly.

Weerasethakul sets up a fascinating dichotomy in his inclusion of these archaeologists – understanding the past through memory vs studying it through history, intangible concepts vs material artefacts.

And then there is the third form of sound that manifests in Memoria – the artificial type, which is produced by sound engineer, Hernan, as he assists Jessica in determining the source of the loud, disruptive bang that continues to plague her everyday life. Together, the two spend a good length of time in his studio, warping, compressing, and equalising a sound until it is identical to the one Jessica hears. It is a lengthy scene, but it also might be the least challenging of the film, as we all too easily invest ourselves in this manufactured recreation despite it not actually offering any real answers. It is the attempt at taking back control over this sound which we admire in Jessica, and yet as if in response to her assertion of agency, the universe itself shifts around her – or is it perhaps that she is just remembering things incorrectly?

The first sign that something might be off is the discovery that a man she has believed to be dead for a year is in fact alive and well, a fathomable mistake for someone to make given how malleable and tricky memory can be. But then Hernan disappears off the face of Earth with no trace of his existence other than within her own mind. If this shift comes from exterior forces, then perhaps the introduction of another man also named Hernan who offers his own wisdom is a gentle push from the universe towards understanding the sound on a deeper level than mere artificial reconstruction.

Deconstructing sound in such a manipulative manner, before Jessica hands herself over to the ethereality of it.

Despite this being Weerasethakul’s first film shot outside of his native Thailand and his first in English, any notions that this is his grab at mainstream appeal are very quickly dispelled by his languid pacing and inscrutable narrative turns, challenging us to tune into the eerie, introspective frequency that Memoria operates upon. He has always employed long, static shots with such formal rigour, and here whenever he cuts from one of these it feels like its own tiny disturbance in the fabric of Memoria’s peaceful flow, much like the persistent sonic boom.

We still get interiors in the second half, but there are always large, open windows keeping the lush foliage of forests in the background.

Although the story is far removed from the jungles of Thailand, there is still beauty to be found in his urban interiors and overgrown forests, with both aesthetics effectively dividing the film in two halves, separating the material from the spiritual. In the former, Weerasethakul often sets his camera at diagonals in his tiny dioramas, beholding the parallel and intersecting lines which make up these unyielding spaces, and then in one shot he lets us linger on an empty plot of glass inexplicably encased in glass, like a meagre piece of nature left for us to observe, but not interact with. Later, he fully relishes every second spent on a lush, verdant riverbank, the rustic furniture of the ‘new’ Hernan spread out through the intensely green palette made up of thick grass and foliage, providing a soothing setting for Jessica’s great revelation.

Weerasethakul has always had a great knack for crowding out his characters in these wild, green spaces. This composition here on an overgrown riverbank is particularly attractive, and may be the longest shot in the film.

And yes, there is indeed an answer to the great mystery at hand, though it doesn’t come easily. It isn’t just surprising because of its genre-bending implications, but because so much of Memoria is spent focused on what lies beneath the Earth, that we hadn’t even begun to consider turning our eyes upwards. As for why this noise seems to be contained within Jessica’s own mind, it would be no great spoiler to point to the title of the film itself. Traces of the past manifest as echoes in the present, and Weerasethakul delights in immersing us even further into a soundscape where the soft patter of rain fades into the first true bit of silence we have heard in this film, before giving way to the aural evocation of a memory previously recounted in conversation. The second Hernan, the man who assists her along this road, is simply another enigma in this story, becoming a pure representation of memory in his rejection of new experiences, and his ability to recall everything that has happened in his life.

As Memoria hands itself over to a mesmerising montage of Columbia’s dense jungles and canopies in its final minutes, there is some relief to be found in the relative simplicity of these images compared to everything that has come before. Weerasethakul’s touches of magical realism are sure to mystify and perplex viewers, though the true test of patience is his slow-burn narrative, which simultaneously invites us into its quiet rhythms and challenges our desire for to keep leaping forward to the next big plot point. It is the past, not the future which he sets his sights on here, and in these delicate reflections our minds are lifted away from the artificial progress and constructions of the material world, and dropped into a serene sea of memory.

Untamed weeds and shrubs growing over manmade structures.

Memoria is coming soon to theatres.

5 thoughts on “Memoria (2021)”

    1. I’ve never seen anything close to a bad performance from Tilda Swinton. That said, I don’t think Weerasethakul’s films often lend themselves to bold, outstanding performances, since he more uses his actors as vessels of his gentle, relaxed style. I do think Swinton is a good match for that here though. What do you think, if you have seen it?

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      1. I thought Swinton was great here, the scene where she’s talking with friends and has to react to the loud sonic booms only she can hear while the others just carry on as normal is good stuff.

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