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Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

A central scene in Memoria, the entrancing new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, takes place in a sound studio. Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a British woman living in Colombia, attempts to describe a phantom sound she has been hearing—a task made even trickier by the fact that she is not fluent in Spanish. “It’s like a big concrete ball… that falls into a metal well… and is surrounded by sea-water,” she fumblingly ventures. The obliging sound engineer, Hernán Bedoya (Juan Pablo Urrego), helps her replicate the noise, starting with various hilariously named film sound effects (“stomach punch in hoodie”), and tweaking the bass and sculpting the sound waves to get closer to what’s in her mind. As Swinton said in a talk following the U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, the scene in the sound lab functions as a metaphor for artistic collaboration, and art itself: the attempt to communicate and represent something only you can hear. It also resonates (pun intended) with a critic trying to describe the matter-of-fact strangeness and dream logic of this or any other Apichatpong film.

The premise of the phantom sound was inspired by the director’s own experience of “exploding head syndrome” while traveling through Colombia. Despite its alarming name, this is a relatively benign condition, most often experienced during the transitional phase between sleep and waking. That borderland between alertness and the unconscious evokes the world of Apichatpong’s films, in which the living are surrounded by ghosts, past lives, and the reverberations of history. Memory and the pull of the past are often framed as nostalgic, a longing for the comfort of the familiar. Apichatpong reveals how uncanny and ambiguous these forces can be; in his films, the past is alien, layered with trauma and the beauty of the unknowable.

Memory is nothing like a filmed record of our lives: it is both fitful and obsessive, erasing some experiences while rehashing others to a disabling degree, like the private sonic booms that distract Jessica while she is trying to decide whether to order the osso buco in a nice restaurant with her sister and her family. (“I think I’m going crazy,” she later tells a friend, who replies, “It’s not the worst thing to be.”) Memoria’s focus on sound, which vibrates through our whole bodies, its audible range only the tip of the iceberg, is a rich metaphor for the way we experience history—less as a narrative or collection of facts than as a “rumble from the center of the earth,” as Jessica describes her sound to the engineer.

Memoria is Apichatpong’s first feature shot outside Thailand, where censorship has made it difficult for him to work freely. He and Swinton had long wanted to collaborate, and she has said they wanted to work together in a place where they would both be strangers. The resulting film celebrates the fruitfulness of being disoriented, thrown off balance, and at a loss; Swinton’s movements and expressions convey a kind of woozy uncertainty, hypersensitive but also vague. When she sees a doctor about her insomnia and psychological unease, the smiling, white-coated woman urges her not to take Xanax because it will numb her empathy and make her unable to feel the beauty and sadness of the world—then gives her a religious pamphlet and encourages her to find Jesus. One of the delights of Memoria is how funny it often is.

There is no linear story, but a series of enigmatic vignettes, a whole school of red herrings flashing into view and then gliding away. Jessica, who grows flowers and studies the blotchy diseases of orchids, shops for a refrigerator to preserve plants; a saleslady shows off a gleaming high-tech model, proudly announcing, “in here, time stops.” In a hospital where she is visiting her sister, Jessica meets a woman studying 6,000-year-old skeletons discovered in a tunnel excavation, with holes drilled into some of the skulls to release evil spirits. There are no direct references to Colombia’s political or historical traumas, just a pervasive sense of haunted foreboding. All the sounds, from background machine hums to an ominous cacophony of car alarms, are slightly heightened. When a truck blows a tire in the street, a man drops to the ground and then breaks into a sprint, perhaps spooked by the recollection of gunfire. Later, Jessica recovers a childhood memory of hiding under a bed from some unnamed forces—but this memory, it turns out, does not belong to her.

Finally, in the lush countryside, Jessica meets a man (the magnetic Elkin Diaz) cleaning fish beside a chattering stream. He is also named Hernán Bedoya, just like the sound engineer, who mysteriously vanishes halfway through the film. This Hernán tells Jessica that he remembers everything, so he tries to see as little as possible; he doesn’t watch TV or movies, and he has never left his town. Burdened with total recall, he also embodies an antidote to the modern curse of overstimulation, the constant intake of cheap, forgettable images. When he sleeps, he does not dream: he just—literally, it seems—lies down and dies, a temporary extinction demonstrated in an astounding, prolonged shot.

The encounter between Jessica and Hernán seems to explain a lot, but is in itself the deepest mystery. Like an antenna receiving radio waves, she has been picking up his memories, along with experiences embedded in the land—in stones that have absorbed vibrations of things that happened near them. There is even a vision revealing the apparent source of the boom Jessica has been hearing—a superfluous sci-fi solution that is perhaps best taken as an elaborate joke. But the fancy digital effects and majestic panoramas that conclude the film are less stirring than the intimate connection between two near-strangers. In a climactic scene, Jessica and Hernán hold hands across a table while a crescendo of sound washes over them, mingling fragments of different voices and stories with the drumming of a rainstorm and the muffled roar of time.

It has been announced that Memoria will only be available in theaters, and will screen at only one theater at a time, traveling from city to city on a “never-ending” tour. This distribution plan seems like a deliberate rebuke to the nature of filmas a replicable mass medium, an idealistic insistence on the movie as a collective encounter happening in a particular place—everyone jumping together at the film’s first, startling bang, adding their own breathing and shuffling to the soundscape. This provocative decision is one more thing to debate about this cryptic film. Like a stone dropped in a well to listen for the splash, Memoria echoes in the mind long after it ends.

Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. She has written for The Criterion Collection and elsewhere, and wrote the Phantom Light column for Film Comment.