Both ends of the spectrum of my film consumption were on display this past weekend. One day, I’m watching a kids’ movie based on a videogame series that sits atop the box office charts, and the next day I’m driving across the city to an independent theater with no parking to watch an arthouse film promoting its limited theatrical run and lack of distribution afterward. Well, that tactic worked well enough to get me into the theater before the film left Los Angeles. Memoria captures a beautiful, meditative sense of genuine humanness but also battles an overly protracted rollout that makes it all but a lock for my Weirdest Movie of the Year.
A woman is awoken by a loud sound in the middle of the night. When she can’t figure out where it came from, she begins an obsessive journey that pushes the limits of her sanity. Trust me, that’s a more enticing description than the film’s official tagline: “A woman from Scotland, while traveling in Colombia, begins to notice strange sounds. Soon she begins to think about their appearance.” Honestly, the tone of that tagline may be more apropos for the experience.
While not exactly a household name, writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been one of the most intriguing names in international filmmaking over the last two decades. Now I see why. There is a kind of organic earthiness to Memoria that has lingered over the past couple of days since I watched it. The first hour or so was very compelling as a pseudo-psychological thriller and I found myself transfixed by the lead character’s obsession with the sound she’s trying to identify. There is even a dry, but effective, sense of humor in her experience that keeps you engaged and makes her more relatable. I can’t pinpoint exactly when but, at some point in the second half, that evaporates. Having not seen Weerasethkul’s work before, I could only be told that two-part “stories” are a stylistic trademark. However, we are left with a fairly tedious crawl towards an end that leaves the viewer with far more questions than answers.
I am aware that the character’s perception is subjective and that our interpretation of that experience, as the viewer, is basically the whole point of the film and that theme is common to Weerasethakul’s work. However, if that’s actually the case, the ending actually undermined the idea of subjective interpretation by reaching far beyond the scope of the story we’ve been watching for two hours in order to provide an objective answer to the question at the center of its story. But why even attempt to answer the question at all? All it did for me was create a fracture in the film’s identity. Where I felt very much in sync with it in the first half, I felt an imbalance as it ended. Anyway, moving on.
Tilda Swinton and weird movies are almost synonymous at this point, but she was her usual brilliant self. Her character being from Scotland is completely irrelevant and I don’t know why it exists in the tagline at all, other than to clarify that she is a foreigner in Colombia but you can figure that out. There is no mention of her being from Scotland that I can recall, nor does she have a Scottish accent, so that’s just bizarre. Swinton is still amazing, especially because there is an intentional language barrier her character has to navigate which creates an additional layer of discomfort in certain moments that require her uniquely articulate definition. I could totally see her being an admirer of Weerasethakul, reading the script, and hopping aboard as the lead and an executive producer. Her performance is the best I have seen so far this year and would have to be considered the standout feature.
Since it’s a film about a particular sound and how we associate them with memories, I should point out that the sound design itself was very interesting and well presented. There is a scene pretty early on where Jessica (Swinton) sits down with a sound engineer at the local music academy to begin her investigation into what she heard. As the two of them comb through sounds effects together, there is a sense of grandiosity that’s hard to explain but it’s a key sequence in the film.
Near the end of the film, Jessica and the audience meet a character played by Elkin Díaz for the first time. I won’t get too much into the nature of their acquaintanceship too heavily because that’s for you to discover on your own if you do, in fact, make the time for this. However, he is exceptional and there’s one scene where he’s terrifyingly good. It’s an interesting role that requires a sense of humanity from a less singular perspective. Like the rest of the movie, his presence is strange but it’s par for the course by that point.
This film and Weerasethakul were nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2021 and I am not sure how to feel about that. However, it did win the Jury Prize that recognizes originality and spirit. It isn’t a narrative film, so just put that aside. Critics seem to love it but the general public isn’t on the same page. I wouldn’t categorize this as a “bad” movie, but I would be hard-pressed to call it a “good” one. There is good filmmaking quality, artistry, and some excellent performances to bolster that but there are also extended B-roll shots that really drag the whole thing out much too long. I guess it’s a thing in contemporary Asian alternative cinema to not edit these shots and just let them go on for minutes at a time, but even I have my limits.
Recommendation: If you are a die-hard arthouse cinema lover, then, by all means, see it for Tilda Swinton and the utter strangeness of it all. However, if you are like 99% of the other moviegoing audience, you can probably skip it. Just be aware that it won’t be coming to video-on-demand, DVD, or streaming. At least that’s the sales pitch right now.
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