“Memoria” Review

At the 2018 Rotterdam Film Festival, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul opened the doors to the SleepCinemaHotel, a pop-up space playing a 120-hour art installation he’d directed, inviting all attendees to fall asleep to his typically dreamlike series of images. Weerasethakul believes in the relationship between cinema and dreams so strongly he actively encourages people to nod off as they’re watching his works. If anything, it seems like something of an arthouse in-joke that his most feted film to date is the story of a woman who can’t get to sleep, being kept awake by a sudden, intense sound seemingly only she can hear – described as a “rumble from the core of the Earth”.

Image © Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF-Arte and Piano, 2021

Memoria isn’t Weerasethakul’s unexpected pivot to jump-scare cinema, of course, using this tale to explore the wider relationship between sound and our perception of the world around us. Like his prior films, he has described it simply as “a dream”, and yet this is his first work that feels rooted in our waking consciousness, finding something otherworldly within the mundane, recontextualising the everyday so that the outside world looks a lot different when you re-emerge from a darkened, eerily silent cinema. Much like Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi Under the Skin, this story’s placement within an unassuming locale serves only to heighten its surrealism – finding something unexpectedly profound in how it depicts those vast differences in reaction between the populace and the surroundings they take for granted.

Tilda Swinton stars as Jessica, a Scottish expat staying in the Colombian capital of Bogotá while her sister is hospitalised. One evening, she’s woken by a sudden loud bang, which she initially attributes to building work, only to soon find this is a noise nobody but herself can hear. Hiring a sound engineer (Juan Pablo Urrego) to attempt to recreate this recurrent bang only adds further confusion to this mystery; he disappears after creating his own approximation of the noise, with no clear reason as to why this sound is continuing to affect Jessica’s own perception of reality.

Image © Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF-Arte and Piano, 2021

Swinton is a performer who has taken to outsized caricature in recent years, swinging for the fences in everything from Snowpiercer to Wes Anderson’s recent The French Dispatch (which premiered alongside Memoria at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival). Memoria is home to her most powerful performance since Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a quiet depiction of a woman continuously haunted by her surroundings, untethered from the urban landscapes around her, but attempting to assimilate regardless – perhaps there is more between these two great performances than meets the eye. Several critics have noted that the film could be read as a commentary on colonialism; one striking scene, in which a man jumps at the sound of a bus engine backfiring while those around remain indifferent, reads as both a broad gag misdirect to Jessica’s condition, and an underlying reminder that for many people here, there remain lingering memories of violence, which they instinctively act against.

Image © Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF-Arte and Piano, 2021

In the film’s third act, as Jessica travels to a remote outpost and meets an old man with the same name as her vanished sound engineer (here played by Elkin Díaz), this commentary becomes more literal and generational. In an extended sequence, which takes up to half an hour of the total runtime, she increasingly sees this man as the answer to why she’s hearing these noises, as timelines and memories converge, and she’s reprimanded for witnessing traumatic memories that aren’t hers, which she is now claiming as her own. It’s why another third act reveal, which aims to tie Memoria more directly into the realm of science fiction, falls flat, registering as a cheap joke at the expense of the film’s more rewarding ambiguities. Whether this reveal can be taken literally is a different question altogether, but in a film that uses our perception of sound to show how intrinsic it is to the way we view the world, it feels like an unsatisfying conclusion.

Despite this, Memoria is Weerasethakul’s most richly realised film to date; both a powerful dreamlike fable set in a hauntingly uncanny cityscape, and a textured allegory coming to terms with a nation’s past traumas. Throughout the pandemic, several filmmakers have declared their film being essential to see on the big screen. Weerasethakul offers pure immersion instead of spectacle, and as a result, he has delivered the only Covid-era film that would be unthinkable to watch anywhere else. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Written by Alistair Ryder

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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