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DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
FEATURING: Tilda Swinton
PLOT: A Scottish woman traveling in Colombia thinks she’s losing her mind when she intermittently hears a mysterious thumping sound.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Memoria is a deliberately-paced accumulation of subtly odd incidents, with one big weird reveal.
COMMENTS: Memoria has a lot on its mind, but Weerasethakul’s philosophy, if not his film’s purpose, is summed up in a discussion in a doctor’s office (a conversation that Pfizer might not appreciate). Jessica has come to see a physician in a small Amazonian town seeking relief from her increasing auditory hallucinations and concomitant insomnia. She hints about pills. Tranquilizers, the non-prescribing physician advises, “will make you lose empathy. You will no longer be moved by the beauty of this world. Or the sadness of this world. Do you know Salvador Dalí? Salvador Dalí understood the beauty of this world.”
With all of the potential themes weaving their way through this movie, and through all of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, the simple directive of not overlooking the beauty of this world is a constant. As with other minimalist filmmakers, Weerasethakul pauses on scenes like a shot of a woman silhouetted in the silvery night, or an quietly teeming Amazonian jungle seen from a balcony, long enough so that you can absorb all the detail, all the beauty. Though she seeks a brief relief from the pressures of her world with Xanax, Jessica is not alien to this insight: on an errand at a music studio, she stops in a doorway to listen to a spirited jam session from a jazz quartet. Not many movies take time out in the middle of the story for a brief and totally superfluous recital—but for Weerasethakul, beauty pops up unexpectedly, and we must take time to savor it when it arrives.
It should be noted that much of the beauty he arranges for us is strange beauty, the beauty of the inexplicable and the supernatural. The movie’s second scene is a symphony arranged for car alarms, whose various honks and sirens, set off by some poltergeist, perform an aleatory rhythmic concert. Another early scene involves Jessica talking to sound engineer Hernán, who takes time out of his schedule to help her recreate the sound she’s hearing in her head in the studio, working from a library of movie effects, sculpting waveforms to create a “more earthy,” “rounder” sound at Jessica’s direction. This is an unusual scenario, to say the least. From this meeting Hernán takes a strong and peculiar interest in the older woman—that is, until he suddenly disappears from the story. Then, oddly enough, in a remote village Jessica meets a fish-scaler and mystic who just happens to also be named Hernán. This second Hernán understands the language of howler monkeys, does not dream, and holds the answer to the source of the thumping sound Jessica has been hearing… a rather astounding answer, it turns out.
Swinton is reserved here. She is quietly lost in the world, never raising her voice, reacting with widening eyes and tightening lips to the alarming noises echoing in her head. She is the perfect Weerasethakul heroine, reacting just enough to these beautiful mysteries to guide us towards absorbing and savoring them. Memoria is a wispy piece of poetry that rewards concentration, but doesn’t demand it. If your mind drifts, you won’t miss anything. You see what is there to be seen, and hear what is there to be heard.
The screener copy I received on DVD was preceded by an short apologia from Weerasethakul and Swinton reminding us to “respect that this film was intended for a very, very much larger screen than the one you’re probably viewing it on now, and to keep that sacrosanct.” I didn’t get it at the time–I thought it was an unnecessary plea to not pirate the film, or simply to take into account that this was a sub-optimal presentation. But it turns out that these critics’ screener copies are reluctantly granted exceptions to the film’s rule: Weerasethakul intends for the movie to be shown only in theaters, with no home video or streaming release. (I imagine they will relent on that restriction after a few years pass, but then again, Matthew Barney never has.) In the U.S., it begins its release on December 26, traveling from town to town, one engagement at a time. We’ll post a schedule when we can. If you want to see Memoria, you’ll have to make a point to seek it out; it won’t come to you.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…watching Memoria is like sleepwalking through an unfamiliar territory. It’s like a lucid dream; you are not quite sure if you are awake or dreaming… Memoria, with languid long takes and tranquil setting, is a deeply contemplative film that offers you to experience a dreamscape in a place strange yet familiar, where you can embrace the mysteries of life.”–Dustin Chang, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)