Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is woken in the night by a bang. Memoria, a bizarre film which gets odder the longer it goes on, begins. What is the noise? Outside, in the dawn light, in a parking lot full of cars, one of the car alarms goes off, then another, and another, until all the car alarms are parping away. Gradually, one after another, they all fall silent again.
Jessica visits a sound engineer called Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego) to try and replicate the sound she heard. She visits her sister who is ill in hospital. She has a meeting at a hostel with a man who wants her to sign some papers. She’s in Colombia and it’s possible that she’s there to sign off on someone’s death, it’s not certain.
No, it seems Jessica is a florist and is based out there. The sick sister is suddenly out of hospital. Not so sick at all. Hernan has disappeared and no one has ever heard of him. Jessica tries to make small talk with her sister about a dog they both know. What dog?, asks the sister. They chat about a dentist Jessica thinks is dead. He’s not dead, retorts the sister, and her husband backs her up, just to reinforce the sense that something here is a bit off.
Later, Jessica meets another guy called Hernan, by a stream where he is cleaning fish. This Hernan is about two decades older than the sound engineer but it could be the same guy. After a while of talking together, in what looks like the prelude to a love scene, Hernan instead lies down on the ground and dies. Some minutes later, during which time the camera has barely left his motionless face, Hernan comes back to life.
The mystery genre is a popular one with film-makers, but Thai writer/director Apichatpong Weerasthakul adds a stylistic tweak to the goings-on by giving us absolutely no clue as to what in fact is going on. No cutaway reveals, no reaction shots, no musical stings. The film is called Memoria, Memory, which is a clue, of sorts. “Am I losing my mind?,” asks Jessica at one point, just casually talking.
What happens to identity if memory is suspect? There’s nothing new or subtle about this – Total Recall did it all with a high body count and a woman with three breasts. Weerasthakul’s trick is his treatment.
If Memoria is an entirely subjective film seen through the eyes of Jessica, Weerasthakul presents it in a coolly abstract, “objective” way – the camera never moves, the takes are looooooong and often eventless, there is no incidental music, often there is barely any dialogue, the colours are muted, the compositions are (artfully) non-artful, ambient sound ebbs and flows. All the hallmarks of a documentary film, in fact.
Is that what’s going on here? Just when it seems clear that we’re at the mercy of a director determined to wrongfoot us – a crack-up seen through the eyes of the person experiencing it, perhaps – Weerasthakul throws in a ball so curved it’s almost looping back on itself. He seems to be telling a joke against himself as the high priest of a lush, dreamlike style of film-making – see Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives for further evidence of that.
Through it all sails an impassive Tilda Swinton, ideal casting for this sort of thing, practical, down to earth, naturalistic and yet always with something of the alien about her.
Reach into the bag of adjectives reserved for Weerasthakul’s films – elliptical, bizarre, otherworldly, spiritual – and scatter them about liberally, and then find a few more for the film’s last 15 minutes, when it arrives at a point of stasis and becomes a series of static shots. Landscapes, skyscapes, portraits. Matter-of-factness rarely seemed so odd.
Memoria – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022