It starts with a bang. Not the metaphorical, head-first into action kind of bang — not that you would ever expect that from an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film — but an eerie thud. A thunderous boom that pierces through the dead of night. “Like a rumble from the core of the Earth” is how botanist Jessica (Tilda Swinton) describes this sound, which rustles her awake from her sleep and soon invades her everyday life in Colombia.
With Memoria, Weerasethkul ventures outside of his native Thailand for the first time, and if anyone was worried that the geographic departure would also induce a stylistic departure too, you can ease your stress. This is (expectedly) sloooowwwww cinema at its peak, full of pregnant pauses between sentences and five-minute long static shots of Swinton sitting on a grassy plain, sitting at the doctor’s office, sitting on a lamp-lit bench. You might fall asleep. You probably will. By no means is this a bad thing. Meditative and hypnotic, Memoria keeps you entranced by these moments of stillness, so that you can see the minute details gradually unravel before your eyes.
The film is more bound by its haunting images than any overarching plot, but here’s what you can piece together in this odyssey: Jessica is troubled by this persistent noise that no one else seems to hear. A friend introduces her to a sound engineer who is able to recreate the boom as closely as possible, but it doesn’t help her in identifying where the source of the sound is. As she investigates further, things begin to unravel. The sound engineer doesn’t exist, she’s told. A dentist she was sure had passed away a year prior is actually alive and well. Memory is a slippery thing.
If there’s a serene tranquility that resides within Weerasethakul’s other works like Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Memoria’s quiet moments (which is practically the whole movie) are riddled with anxiety. The next crashing boom is perpetually imminent, waiting to interrupt the silence. The film is more effective at creating unrelenting tension than most of the horror genre.
And so, for the next two hours, Swinton navigates Colombia’s concrete and literal jungle in search of answers that never really appear. The director was reportedly inspired by his time in South America, where he developed signs of Exploding Head Syndrome, but the film doesn’t reach for such an easy conclusion. When Jessica seeks a medical explanation, she’s encouraged to find Jesus instead — one of the rare moments that elicited laughter in a mostly solemn, plaintive film.
This might be Weerasethakul’s most accessible film yet, but that’s still not saying much. But with Tilda Swinton at the center, is there really anything else that you need? Even when she’s saying nothing at all, the actress is enchanting to watch, as she gazes at the environment she’s a stranger to.
Until its perplexing final act, Memoria is one of those hypnotic experiences you can’t turn away from, or else you might miss the subtle intricacies hidden within every frame. Listen to the rustling of leaves and the howling of the wind. Bask in it like sunlight on a summer’s day. Just stay still and be quietly moved by this evocative display of memory and peaceful solitude.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. NEON will release Memoria later this year.