Back in 2010, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was the toast of Cannes, with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives scooping the Palme D’Or. He didn’t rest on his laurels over the next decade, with around 20 varied projects – shorts, TV movies and full length features. Last year, he returned to the scene of his triumph, this time with Memoria. No Palme D’Or this time, but the Jury Prize instead to take home.
He also returns with that familiar contemplative pacing which at times comes perilously close to being snooze-worthy in what is billed as his first English language film – in truth a mixture of Spanish and English – set in Colombia. Tilda Swinton is Jessica, an expat who is suddenly woken up in the middle of the night by a strange noise. Not the proverbial bump, but something loud and disturbing and, even though she gives it little thought initially, it returns repeatedly, in a variety of settings. Even more strangely, it seems exclusive to her because, when she hears it, nobody else bats an eyelid.
While the snail-like pace has its downside, it does allow us the luxury of taking time to absorb the film, both visually – the tiniest, most intricate of details which may, or may not, be clues to the origin of the mysterious sound – and aurally, with its apparent peace full of delicate sounds, some so subtle that they almost blend into the background. Especially beautiful are the gloriously luscious tropical surroundings. Who knew there were so many shades of green? It all helps move the film along – it doesn’t have a narrative to speak of – and keeps a tenuous hold on our attention. And then there’s the noise itself, which has an almost cheeky habit of making its presence felt just when you least expect it or, to put in another way, when you’re in danger of nodding off.
With its pace and resultant dream like quality, Memoria feels very much like a meditation. On what? While its cinematography and sound cradle your attention, you’re never quite sure what it all means and the end result is a film which celebrates its obscurity and downright weirdness, but doesn’t give you too many pointers as to its meaning. Perhaps the sense of isolation that surrounds Swinton’s character is the key to it all. And that mysterious noise could be almost anything – the thud of doom, the menace of mortality. Swinton’s Jessica has a difficult job describing it to a sound technician and she has our sympathy. It’s a baffling puzzle of a film, and that’s part of its fascination. Make of it what you will. But, bear in mind that, despite those near-tortuous silences, you’ll find yourself strangely captivated.
Drama | Cert: 12A | Sovereign Film Distribution | UK cinemas, 14th January 2022 | Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Tilda Swinton, Agnes Brekke, Elkin Diaz, Juan Pablo Urrego, Jeanne Balibar.