Film Review: Memoria

By Matthew Moorcroft

Highest Recommendation

  • Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Starring Tilda Swinton, Elkin Diaz, Jeanne Balibar, Juan Pablo Urrego
  • PG

A thud in the night is what startles Jessica, our lead, awake. It’s a loud, sudden burst of noise after a long stretch of silence, and the banging never returns. As Jessica lies awake, waiting for it to happen again and possibly find some kind of source for the bizarre noise, we sit there with her, letting the sound of silence envelop us once again. And then… nothing. The sound never reappears. And when it does, it’s unexpected and sudden, like a burst of noise that completely absorbs you.

Memoria, the latest work of Thai director and auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who also goes by Joe, funnily enough) is less of a straight narrative and more of a sat in, lived experience. Most of it is entirely sensory oriented, with every little sight and sound meant to be part of the whole. At points, you can swear that you hear the sound coming from the back of your head – this, of course, isn’t necessarily possible but the feeling of it is absolutely there and it’s hard to deny. The incredible sound design doesn’t stop at simply the loud noises that our lead is experiencing, but also works to fill in the world and gaps in our own memory. The river flowing down the stream. A jazz band playing in the room next to you. The hustle and bustle of a crowd in the middle of rush hour. The work of machinery, digging up fossils past so they too can fill in the gaps of their memory.

Like a lot of Joe’s work, it demands that you meet it on it’s wavelengths and not on yours. This is, ultimately, going to be biggest hurdle to newcomers, and it’s an understandable one if you are brand new to “slow cinema” as it’s been called. His film as languid and as meticulous as you can get, and yet there is a certain vibe to Memoria that makes almost calming and inviting within it’s grasp. It’s like it wants you to almost sleep along with it, even punctuated by a scene of a man falling into a deep, almost death like slumber as Jessica just waits it out by the river. It’s a beautiful, poetic scene, and once he wakes back up you are jolted back into reality yourself. It’s a hypnotic brand of storytelling and filmmaking that make it impossible to look away from yet so easy to lose yourself in and just absorb the events happening around you.

The enigmatic question though remains – what is Memoria trying to say or convey? That answer will be different depending on the person, but you have to look at how Memoria treats our relationship of the self to nature. Early on in the film, Jessica is trying to describe what the sound feels like to a sound engineer and she says it’s an “earthy” sound. Jessica is constantly looking outside and trying to find a place within our natural world, and sometimes the answers don’t come. Instead, it’s only through shared experience and collective melancholy that she is able to find some kind of peace with the sound. And whatever that sound turns out to be – which is a well telegraphed twist that ties it’s themes of interconnectivity and memory – ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is the feeling of living and the memories that you take away.

And by the end of Memoria, I found myself sitting with it more and more, and finding more to love as time has gone on. It’s a wonderfully crafted film from a technical level, yes, but it’s also one that just stays with you from beginning to end. It ultimately demands a rewatch to experience it again and discover more about it, and also demands that you let it linger more so you miss it, only for it to return again in the future. It’s a deeply personal, moving film despite not moving much at all, and for that I believe it is something of an achievement in of itself. Fantastic stuff here.

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