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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s gift for exquisite empathy remains fully intact in his first feature to be shot outside Thailand and include a major star. Towering over the rest of the Cannes competition in terms of ambition and singularity, Memoria sends a wraithlike Tilda Swinton on a hypnotic wander through Bogotá, the disparate impressions she collects along the way repeatedly interrupted by a metallic thud that echoes inside her skull: one indeterminate sound within an entire filigree soundscape that at once steers the narrative and highlights cinema’s oft-untapped sonic potential.
Jessica, Swinton’s character, is first seen as a shadowy figure at daybreak, woken by the first thud of many that she will gradually realise are only audible to her, although the car alarms that start up in the city outside in seeming response to it already suggest that these noises do indeed have wider reverberations. In line with the film’s general attitude towards explanation, the precise reason for her being in Colombia is never given, although allusions are made both to a husband and to death; her Spanish is only one notch above rudimentary.
The motivation for Jessica’s actions are just as unexplained, which seem less guided by any intentionality than by an insatiable urge to roam. She walks the streets of Bogotá, looks at images of fungi-plagued flowers in a library, passes by an impromptu jazz concert at the university. She visits her sister at the hospital, befriends a French archaeologist named Agnès carrying out excavations in a tunnel and has a sound technician named Hernán try to replicate the thud inside her head; the database he uses consists of cinema sound effects. Her sister fears that a curse might have caused her illness, Agnès talks of an old skull found in the tunnel whose cranium was once pierced to release spirits; and no one seems to have heard of an Hernán when Jessica tries to visit him again at the sound studio.
Although the combined effect of these enigmatic events cannot help but leave an impression on Jessica, the expression on her face barely shifts, aside from the wincing provoked by the sounds in her head. Jessica’s perplexed, stricken countenance and somnambulant gait give her the appearance of a restless spirit, an impression only amplified by the version of Bogotá in which Weerasethakul places her. Captured in his usual lengthy shots, with the camera possessing a wonderfully instinctive sense of when to move and when to stay still, the normally bright, bustling Colombian capital is leached of both colour and noise, with each new thud cutting through the resultant hush like a physical blow.
Even before Hernán and Jessica establish that cinema sound can map out and pinpoint unknown bodily feelings, the film’s sound design possesses such extraordinary intricacy that it functions like an invitation to the viewer to listen and feel along with its protagonist in a way that’s still so rare in cinema, her attempts to tune into the foreign setting and the many distinct meanings it holds mirroring those of the director himself in turn. Weerasethakul’s films have always exuded a profound, often deeply moving empathy for his characters and their feelings, but never has he elevated empathy to a narrative principle.
As Jessica continues to absorb the impressions around her and the thudding grows ever louder, it’s only a matter of time until some point of overflow is reached, which occurs in the film’s second part. Jessica visits Agnès at the tunnel construction site in the country and later comes across a man scaling fish by the river who also happens to be called Hernán. To explain what exactly happens next would be a spoiler if it weren’t so blissfully difficult to express anyway; as the narrative slows down yet further, each minute shift in tone, texture and volume on the soundtrack calls forth incredible, intangible emotion and the earth is left behind. This is also the moment when the understated nature of Swinton’s performance makes perfect sense, as it is replaced by a jolt of feeling so strong that she herself seems surprised by it; and her careful auditory tethering to the viewer across the whole plot means this same sensation is also shared as such.
Even if Memoria is bracingly singular, not least within the context of a frequently earthbound Cannes Competition, I was oddly reminded of an unlikely historical antecedent in the form of Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia: another film which inserts a female icon into an unfamiliar setting and has her soak up its many, multivalent influences until they spill out of her unbidden such that nothing remains the same. The “miracle” that brings Memoria to a close also shares an obvious kinship with Rossellini’s own approach to narrative resolution, which French film critic André Bazin described as follows: “A world of pure acts, unimportant in themselves but preparing the way for the sudden dazzling revelation of their meaning.” Yet things have moved on since 1954: in the Thai master’s hands, one meaning always blossoms into many.
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy