Emerging from the mind of Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and winning the jury prize at Cannes, the inciting incident of Memoria is remarkably simple. Very early one morning, Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is awoken by a loud noise, like a bang, but something more specific. When she realises no-one else can hear it, she turns to a sound engineer to see if he can recreate the sound, describing it as “a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well surrounded by sea water”. Jessica begins to notice this sound is following her, with no discernible point of origin. Her journey to identify the sound takes her to remote regions of Colombia, where her experiences leave her with as many questions as answers.
Memoria has been described by various critics as, ‘hypnotic’, ‘mesmerising’ and ‘spell-binding’, but if the spell doesn’t work on you, the experience of watching it is something of an ordeal. To say that it is ‘deliberately paced’ is misleading in its level of understatement, like saying the Mariana Trench is a ‘bit deep’. There is clearly real depth at work in this piece, but when any significant plot points do float to the surface, they are all too fleeting. You could cut the run time by half, and still keep in all the dialogue. Judging from the critical reception, this may well be a minority opinion, but it can be very hard to see why this story needs to be a film. With mostly wide, locked off shots, there appears to be a blithe disinterest for any cinematography. It’s a film far more focused on its sound than its visuals, so much so that you wonder if you’re missing key plot points if you’re not watching it with a top of the range sound system. When you add to that a character that is so internalised that we are given little to no access to her thoughts, we’re left with the feeling of a lot of waiting around.
That’s not to say it’s without virtues that even the most cynical viewer must acknowledge. In the scene where Jessica tries to describe the sound to Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), the audio engineer, we understand this is a film about how language can be lacking when it comes to describing our experiences. Jessica seems to have quite a relatable sense of synaesthesia, as she uses visual words like “rounder” and “deeper” to describe an audible experience. Anyone who has tried to describe a sound to someone will understand her electric sense of elation when Hernan is able to replicate the sound she is after. But the tiny detail of Jessica grabbing Hernan’s arm when she recognises the sound is over all too quickly. Then all you’re left with is a scene where two people listen to sound effects on a computer, which is exactly as interesting as it sounds
In the last act of the film, we see some interesting twists start to arise as Weerasethakul begins to touch on some fascinating subject matter. Questions around past trauma, human connection and even where we come from as a species are tantalisingly raised. But by that point, the viewer’s patience has already been stretched well beyond breaking point. Some of the wide shots begin to have a soporific effect and this level of aggressive navel gazing feels self-indulgent. There’s literally a five-minute sequence where we watch someone take a nap in real time. Memoria feels less like a story and more like an art installation, or an ASMR experience, the kind of film that comes from an ‘unfilmable’ novel. The tide of critical opinion is against this review, so your mileage on this one may vary, but one thing that it can be applauded for is its consistency of tone. So whether you’re excited or exasperated by the film’s first 8 minutes entirely without dialogue, rest assured that the mood of the tone will not alter for the next two hours.