'Memoria' is the latest film from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and it's his first that I have seen. He is known for using the visual medium as contemporary art, curating a style that plays with immersive cinema through slow and technically expert frames. Apichatpong makes the kinds of films that film students salivate over, showboating a pride and snobbery that, regardless of how meandering or wasteful the scenes may appear, have so much to explore that you can't help but fall for it. Well, I'm no film student and consider myself far from a snob, but I was certainly captured by Apichatpong's craftsmanship - albeit often finding myself with a wandering eye.
In terms of a plot narrative, there really isn't all that much to talk about. 'Memoria' opens with Jessica (Tilda Swinton, 'Snowpiercer', 'The French Dispatch') waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of a loud bang. The scene is otherwise quiet, bar the noise of her dragging feet and the slight movement of a chair. Immediately, one cannot help but take note of the importance sound will play throughout the film. Car alarms are set off just outside, which can trick the viewer into believing that whatever bang woke up Jessica must have disturbed the peace for others. Alas, it becomes evident early on that only Jessica can hear the noise, and the journey she takes in discovering what it is and what it means builds the flow of the film.
To say the film flows following the loud noise is perhaps a disservice to the structure Apichatpong puts in place. In fact, even calling it a loud noise feels an oversimplification. In one scene where Jessica meets with a sound engineer in an effort to recreate the noise, she describes it as "a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well, which is surrounded by seawater... and then it shrinks." The hours Apichatpong must have slaved through to not only create the noise but to then describe it so vividly is an astounding art in itself.
The "flow" - for lack of a better word - is somehow both simultaneously jarring and meditative. The structure of the scenes seem to put into question linear events, going as far as to make the audience doubt the people we've met, when we met them, and then all of a sudden if we've met them at all. It goes against all the rules of cinema, but in doing so manages to create an almost mystical environment.
This is all aided by the direction of Apichatpong and how he positions his camera. Every scene is completely still, with almost no camera movement and barely a cut; only when it is absolutely necessary. It requires not only immense patience from the viewer, but it displays an unbelievable ability of the actors on-screen. It blurs the lines between realism and ambient cinema, somehow drawing in your attention through the space, and keeping it there in an entrancing abyss. Not everything makes sense, but that is exactly what 'Memoria' wants to do, because when something doesn't make sense, it brings you into said dream-like state that encourages free thinking, providing a freedom to interact with what you are seeing.
Set in Colombia, Jessica is battling a foreign noise in a foreign land, which ultimately lends itself to Jessica losing all sense of reality and time. The fixed camera positions may encourage a trance-like space, but it's the tiny details in every scene that linger to the point of obsessive. There is an energy in the film that invites viewers to experience everything as it comes - not to question or judge, but to interact.
The fixed camera positions may encourage a trance-like space, but it's the tiny details in every scene that linger to the point of obsessive. There is an energy in the film that invites viewers to experience everything as it comes - not to question or judge, but to interact.
Swinton is never bad, but she is bringing her A-game to this one. It must be so challenging to carry the weight of such a film, and she visibly carries that weight with her while trying to find the answers she seeks. She is, of course, tired by the anchor of the noise, but she works expertly with the stillness of the camera to project an aura of ambience and strength. She doesn't know what is going on, and even when she begins to question the very nature of her being, Swinton's performance demands that we stay with her until she's at peace.
'Memoria' is a difficult film to review. It has to be experienced and what's truly upsetting is that I could not experience it as it needs to be. This film begs to be seen on the big screen, allowing the audience to be completely immersed. I was sitting on my couch at home, lights on, with bad internet and the usual interruptions. Perhaps it was my surroundings, perhaps I don't have enough film degrees (or any), but there were times when I was just bored. This film has done much more for me after the fact, when I've been able to think about it for a few days and really let it take over me. During my viewing, I was often wondering when the scene would end, tuning in and out and not allowing myself to be as infatuated with this as I wanted it be - or how much it deserves to be.
The utmost patience is required to appreciate the stillness of this film, as nothing is given on a silver platter. The slow pace brings a mystical experience to the table, exploring dreams, nature, ghosts, human existence and, of course, memory. When you can perfectly place your camera and keep it running, letting the sounds of the environment dictate the rhythm, then you know you have crafted a very special film. A film that's certainly not for everyone - and frankly not even that much for me - but there is clearly a space for this film to exist, and I encourage anyone to watch it and allow themselves to be taken by it. The ending might leave many audience members angry or confused, but there will be a handful of cinema-goers who leave feeling overwhelmed by the emotional state Apichatpong put them in, and that's worth something.