PG, 136 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
The new film from Apichatpong Weerasthakul, is a big step for the celebrated indie director. Filmed in the cities, villages and mountains of Colombia, with a cast of English and Spanish-speaking actors and Tilda Swinton in the lead role, it is a world away from his native Thailand.
Swinton plays a Scottish woman, Jessica, who has made her home in the South American country where she is apparently on her own, apart from a married sister in Bogota. This is what we take from the minimal backstory.
Never particularly one for exposition, the filmmaker, who is as usual both writer and director here, prefers his audiences to immerse themselves in the sensory and dream-like experiences that he creates.
Memoria opens in a bedroom in the half-light of dawn. There is a loud thud, a disturbing, violent sound that crashes through the stillness, and Jessica is immediately up, opening doors and peering out to try to find its source. When car alarms are mysteriously activated in the street outside, we might wonder why other people impacted by the commotion aren’t also up and about, trying to investigate the source of the commotion.
An invitation to immerse oneself like a solitary traveller in a foreign land, in a surreal and sensory experience with the strangeness of a waking dream
Later, at the park and at a restaurant with her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) and husband and son, Jessica is the only person to hear the mystery sound when it returns. Not once, but several times in quick succession, while no one else gives the slightest hint they’ve heard anything. It becomes clear that Jessica is the only one who can hear it.
In an effort to identify the sound she drops by young Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrega) in his mixing room. It was like a big ball of concrete, she says, falling into a well surrounded by sea water. Actually no, it was earthy, like a rumble from the core of the earth, or more like a body hitting a duvet landing on wood. Jessica struggles to find the language for the sound engineer to identify, yet they seem to get somewhere close.
Curiously, when she returns to Hernan’s studio a short while later, no one there seems to know him. Does Hernan reappear as his older self when Jessica meets a man named Hernan later in the film who has left the world behind for a life of self-sufficiency and seclusion in a mountain village? In Weerasthakul’s world of colliding pasts, presents and futures, I’d say it was.
Another friend of Jessica’s, Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), whose professional role is uncovering the past, underscores the film’s themes of collective memory and dealing with the historical past. She shows Jessica a recent find at the dig she oversees, the skeleton of a girl around six thousand years old, that has recently been unearthed. There is a hole in the skull, prompting the archaeologists to think her demise was a ritual death.
In interview, the filmmaker has talked about his affinity with Colombia, the gateway between the civilizations of North and South America, and its rich cultural heritage as a result of this unique position. Colombia’s mountainous regions apparently remind him of the place where he lived as a young child in northern Thailand, and the people there also believe in ghosts.
As the white European who speaks the languages of two of the main colonising powers in the Americas, Jessica is a curious figure. Down-to-earth, accessible, unremarkable in her beige shirts, jeans and sneakers and free of the hauteur of the former colonials.
Swinton has a unique look, something other filmmakers in the international industry have capitalised on too
As the stranger in a strange land who is perhaps going a little crazy, pale and lanky Swinton, with her unusual facial features, is perfect for the part of Jessica. And of course, she has that unique look, something that filmmakers in the international industry like Bong Joon-Ho (Snowpiercer) and Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) have capitalised on before now.
Although meaning is elusive, you do get the gist of Memoria, Swinton is excellent, and it is a pleasure to watch a film so well made, that is made with great skill and flows despite very disparate scenes, nonsequitors and surreal content.
It is more accessible than Weerasthakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and I much prefer it. Even though I don’t think he really gets away with that UFO.