movie review

Memoria Is Curious, Complex, and Almost Undone by Its Third Act

Photo: Neon

Memoria, the latest from director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, luxuriates and languishes in that sliver of space that Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell describes in Steven Spielberg’s Hook: “that place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming.” There’s nothing else these two films share in common, I’m sorry to say, as a Hook-is-good truther. But their shared sense that reality is ever slippery, and that our bodies are ever-transforming in reaction to change, is particularly foundational to Memoria.

Weerasethakul is enthralled by the contrast between movement and tranquility and by the actions and choices that push one into the other. He centers Tilda Swinton as Jessica, a woman who hears a mysterious banging (or maybe booming, or thwacking?) noise one morning and then begins to hear it everywhere. (Exploding-head syndrome is a real medical condition, one that Weerasethakul experienced while working on Memoria.) The resulting film is propelled by the quiet magnetism of Swinton’s performance, punctuated by the aural textures of sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, and infused by the melancholy of Weerasethakul’s narrative, which collapses space and time in its imagining of not just who we are, but why we are.

Coaxing out the film’s answers requires a not-insignificant amount of patience, however, as Weerasethakul stations his camera and lets conversations unfurl for 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes at a time with few compositional changes, perspective shifts, or edits. The director’s experimental methodologies have always demanded engagement, whether in previous Cannes winners Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, or his insect-focused segment of this year’s anthology film The Year of the Everlasting Storm. During Memoria’s prolonged third act, though, which subverts the limits of “real time,” this request becomes less satisfying than trying. The quiet poignancy of the film’s previous vignettes are almost overshadowed by the goofiness of Weerasethakul’s final explanation. And though that doesn’t ruin the film, it doesn’t quite match Memoria’s other layers of curiosity and complexity, either.

Jessica (Swinton) is, in the limited way that modern people with responsibilities can be, an explorer. A Scottish woman living in Medellín, Colombia, she runs a flower business, reads books about fungi, and is open to learning about the history of the country where she now resides. But her normal life is upended with the prevalence of an echoing, reverberating noise that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. She hears it in the morning, as Weerasethakul pans around her dark bedroom to adjust our eyes so we can see the same frames and doorways Jessica does, portals leading inside and outside. And she hears it at a busy intersection, where a man drops down to the ground, his sole reaction amid a crowd of otherwise unbothered people signaling to Jessica that she’s not entirely alone. “It’s like a rumble from the core of the Earth,” she tells sound engineer Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), but no recreation can quite capture the fullness or roundness of it. (Kalayanamitr deliberately tweaks each of Hernán’s attempts so they’re slightly off, maintaining the singularity of Jessica’s noise until its cause is revealed.)

As Jessica tries to understand what is happening to her, Weerasethakul follows her daily routines, building a portrait of a woman who might be losing her sense of the world around her and her place within it. Swinton conveys this through her beleaguered physicality: the slump in her shoulders, the hesitancy in her body, the way she leans and twists and jolts whenever the sound reappears. So much of Jessica’s journey of self-discovery plays out in the minute changes in Swinton’s expressions and reactions, from her quiet delight at Hernán joining her on a shopping trip for a new refrigerator to “un-age” her flowers to her deadpan “I think I’m going crazy” as she takes a bite out of an empanada. The actress’s androgynous, otherworldly vibe, amped up so often in films like Snowpiercer and Suspiria, is laid bare here, and her rawness complements Weerasethakul’s peeling-back-layers approach to the significance of Jessica’s haunted sound.

The film’s ensemble is small, but practically everyone is a scene-stealer. Jessica’s sister, Karen (Agnes Brekke), wonders whether she’s been cursed by a stray dog and then has absolutely no memory of her lengthy theory, leading to Jessica’s own panicked reaction to a German Shepherd that seems to follow her into a park. Jeanne Balibar is enjoyably matter-of-fact as an anthropologist studying skeletons unearthed by a tunneling project in Bogotá, the revealed bones from 6,000 years ago at odds with gigantic pieces of modern machinery. And Elkin Díaz, as a peculiar man Jessica meets in the verdant jungle of a remote village, handles the gargantuan requests of the script’s conclusion with quiet confidence. The image of him sleeping on the grass, his eyes wide open and his brown leather boots a jarring interruption to the otherwise-green landscape, is one of Memoria’s most uncanny inventions.

Distributor Neon has said Memoria will never receive a digital or physical release but will instead only ever be shown exclusively in theaters, which feels like a mistake for a film that would benefit from repeat views in intimate quarters to sort through all its angles. (That worked for me; my nonplussed initial reaction in a theater grew substantially warmer upon rewatch at home.) Weerasethakul smartly interrupts his film’s solemnity and serenity with moments of joie de vivre (the uninterrupted jamming of a jazz quartet) and dark humor (a doctor played by Constanza Gutierrez who smugly refuses Jessica’s request for sleeping pills and instead lectures her on staying unmedicated so she can feel “the sadness of this world”). How smoothly Memoria loops together all its unexpected moments is mostly rewarding. But that ending! It is a hurdle that inches the film from profundity toward tediousness, and it is only through Díaz and Swinton’s steady performances and Weerasethakul’s unshakeable respect for the wild and its mysteries that remain untouched by human influence that Memoria manages to right itself into a film whose challenges are still worth taking on.

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Curious, Complex Memoria Is Almost Undone by Its Third Act