Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Columbia, Thailand, France, Germany, Mexico, Qatar, UK, China, Switzerland). Year of Release: 2021
Some dingy curtains viewed from the inside of a bedroom. You suddenly hear a loud sound. A shot perhaps, or maybe equipment falling off a building site? Could be a sonic boom. Whatever it is, there is stirring in the bed. Slowly – VERY slowly – a figure starts to get up. We later learn that Jessica (call me Jess) often hears this sort of sound, which appear to be inaudible to anyone else.
Jess is in Colombia, visiting her sister who has been taken down by a debilitating illness, which she thinks may be the result of her having ignored a dog once. As Jess tends her sister, we experience a touching little scene – appropriately for this film only experienced in tonight’s screening. Jess sits calmly next to her sister who gradually falls asleep. Suddenly, you hear the gentle sound of snoring. It took me a little while to realise that this sound was coming from the woman sitting next to me.
Eager to find out why she keeps hearing a booming sound, Jess visits Hernán, one of her husband’s former students, in a recording studio. Following Jess’s instructions (“a little earthier”) Hernán successfully emulates the sound. This is just about the last time that he appears in the film. Shortly afterwards, Jess returns in the studio where everyone strongly denies that anyone named Hernán has ever worked there (though Jess meets someone else with the same name later).
Memoria is in no rush to reach its destination and is prone to meandering. Before Hernán tries to emulate Jess’s noise, he finishes off some editing work. Later, and a propos of nothing, we stop by and watch a performance of a jazz quartet. At one stage, we watch literally minutes of footage of a man sleeping by a river. That’s good news for people who want to write passionate articles about innovative film making. It’s bad news for anyone in the cinema who has to sit through it.
Good news: Jess is played by the superb Tilda Swinton, the only actor named after a punctuation mark. Swinton is exceptional in just about every film she’s in – even the crappy ones. One of the reasons I find her so great is that she looks quite different to the way a leading actress is supposed to look. Bad news: Swinton is not allowed to do much at all in this film, other than spend most of the time speaking in subtitled Spanish. Essentially, slowly, we watch a talent being wasted.
The film has attracted almost universally ecstatic press reviews and won a prize at Cannes. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian claims that “in a calmly realist, non-mystic movie language, this director really can convince you that the living and the dead, the past and the present, the terrestrial and the other, do exist side by side.”,
Stephanie Zacharek said in Time “you emerge … knowing exactly where your body has been, but unsure of where your spirit has wandered.” David Rooney noted in the Hollywood Reporter that “the director’s abiding fascination with dreams, nature, time, solitude and of course memory flows like liquid through this lyrical enigma.”
I’m sorry, but I call bullshit. The Emperor has no clothes. Memoria is a series of unconnected scenes – as well as the ones mentioned already, we have a palaeontologist with a 6,000 year old skeleton of a girl with a hole in her head “to let the spirits out” and a doctor who is more interested in evangelicalism – for both Jesus and Salvador Dali – than she is in medicine. Any connection between these scenes is entirely implicit.
We’re presented with a new age spiritualist anti-science message that says there are things out there beyond our ken. It is riddled with psychobabble which attempts to justify itself under the guise of magic realism. Memoria pretends to be an intriguing work of writing that is too deep for plebs to understand. Instead, it’s a self-satisfied piece that thinks that if it offers a few tired tropes, we’ll all fall in behind the pretty pictures.
Initially, I felt that my failure to engage with Memoria was somehow my fault. Gradually, this feeling started to be replaced by something much more worrying. What if there was nothing profound there in the first place? What if this were a collection of random scenes that were vaguely related by an obscure mysticism, which was buried under layers of pseudo-spiritualism, which was unable to understand without the Readers Notes?
As a cinematic experience, this is deeply dissatisfying. To the reviewers who breathlessly coo that it’s hard to tell what is real and what is imaginary, one simple reminder. All of this was made up by a script writer. If some scenes don’t seem to make sense, this is because this is how the writer chose to tell the story. It’s not a sign of strange happenings beyond our ken, it’s just that the writing is deliberately obscure.
Memoria is not a great film, it’s a very naughty boy. The ending is ridiculous, as if the film makers had the chance to make a vaguely plausible ending but had decided instead “just fuck it!” It is a hangover from the idea that we don’t need to explain the world, just find some mad spiritual ideas that may form a grammatical sentence but don’t provide any explanation about how the world works. Some people will love it (they have already), but intellectually it has nothing to contribute.