Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria begins with one of the strangest, most unsettling sounds of the year: a single, heavy thud, like an ancient pulse beneath the ground. One night, it stirs botanist Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) from her sleep, and she assumes it to be nearby construction noise. Parked cars in the neighbourhood also sense this disturbance, ringing with alarms. But with every new “thud” — sometimes in quick succession, sometimes just once — the more she is bewitched by its elusive phenomena. In conversation with a sound-engineer friend, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), Jessica compares it to “a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater,” or potentially “like a rumble from the core of the earth.” Neither of these descriptions are accurate — especially when the source is finally revealed — but they are the closest, most suggestive approximations.
After appearing in features from Pedro Almodóvar (The Human Voice) and Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch) this year, to name just two, Tilda Swinton’s casting in Memoria continues an impressive sweep of auteur-driven projects. As Jessica, Swinton is a quiet and lonely presence, almost impossible to read, preserving and farming orchids in Bogotá, Columbia as a Scottish expat. At times, her presence is spectral — indeed, her figure is barely visible on the film’s poster, fading into the Columbian mountainside. But after first hearing the cosmic clap, she experiences a significant change, no longer able to sleep at night, and possessed by the mystery of the sound – which only she can hear. Her Kurtzian expedition leads her far into the dense junglescape, where nothing is the same, and like the famous stargate sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), time and space shatter and reconstitute in extraordinary ways.
I left the screening of Memoria wondering what I had seen. Time and memory, as Weerasethakul’s title would suggest, play significant roles, but few explanations are offered about the narrative, and questions hang in the air about the psychic connection between Jessica and the unknown, fantastical force. These are not questions director-writer Weerasethakul wishes to answer: his cinema is one of restraint and economy, of few and long shots, where you must take what you are given, however impenetrable or minimal it may seem. Like Bela Tarr’s cows, this real-time vision is immensely beautiful and somehow completely unfamiliar — comparable to trying on sharper prescription glasses, and seeing everything in a different way.
Memoria is a bewitching and enticing film, one whose sonic landscape remained with me long after the credits.
Memoria will be released in UK cinemas from 14th January 2022.
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakful
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Elkin Díaz, Jeanne Balibar
Runtime: 136 minutes
Country: Colombia, Thailand