“To be free, you need to extract yourself from everything, even your own experiences,” a stranger told Apichatpong Weerasethakul one morning in Colombia. All that day rained bombs unseen. He drifted, dreaming and unsleeping. He was diagnosed with Exploding Head Syndrome. He saw images dim and slow. From them, he conceived “Memoria.”
Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, a orchidologist who wanders Colombia with a booming head seeking first to cure, then to understand, then to control the sound, “like a rumble from the core of the Earth.” Though concerned that she’s gone nutty, Jessica is numbly cool. The world around her is just as limply stilted. Cabbies crawl from nothing to nowhere. Even Bogotá street dogs toddle with the measured malaise of Swinton. Each scene teems with un- and mis-remembered memories, so that any reference to the past clouds it further.
The film is shot in the classic Asian style, with sparsely cut frames sustained before and after the action. There is such an inherent formality to it that, while it consists entirely of conversations (many of which trail off into silence), one cannot suspend disbelief, cannot take any confessions as offhand. There is no room for unpremeditated memory. This is not a failing of Weerasethakul but a sign of the task he sets for himself: The film coheres in its lapses, quiet and forgetting.
The booming peppers the film to such a rhythmic pitch that it does not jar but pull one in with suspended anticipation. Sound itself is the main character. Its presence is palpable in every single shot, and (like memory) its absence only points to its presence — likewise for the use of technology. As Jessica shares a cellphone slideshow with her hospitalized archaeologist sister Karen (Agnes Brekke), the audience does not see the pictures, only their screen-lit, bone-tired smiles. A sound engineer, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), has Jessica listen to his recreation of the boom on headphones in the park; the scene is silent save for cars and birds.
People touch twice. Jessica holds Hernán’s hand when he first recreates the sound (ironically, from a bevy of stock studio sound effects). He cautions that a sound depends on what you use to listen to it — headphones, television, cinema. The technology by which people connect displaces them to a point where connection alienates further because it marks their distance from each other; on the other hand, the failure of technology to fully connect people reveals this distance as an illusion.
In the Amazon, Jessica meets a villager who remembers everything which has ever happened. He has never left or dreamt. His name is Hernán (Elkin Díaz). He is likely the same man. She somehow reads his memory “like a hard disk.” As they remember a mugging, then a massacre, they hold hands again. She holds that there are only two good human inventions: pills and liquor. Technology relieves as it confounds her. For a spell the film’s sound cuts entirely; it is so silent that it is felt as a negative pull. One’s ears pop. Then the booms meld with a crackling whirr, like a radio signal. Their source is revealed: an alien spaceship (yes, really) rises from the jungle. It breaks the sound barrier and unearths bones from millennia ago.
In an earlier scene, Karen’s colleagues brush these bones amid workers digging an underground tunnel. Technology displaces, and it is while displaced — at some remove from the present — that one remembers the past. It is no wonder that this glacial, half-amnesiac film disorients the viewer by trapping her in the present.
In view of the ending, the characters seemed mechanistic, robbed of all agency to cause or resist change, holding hands across a haze of unknowns. But in fact, the film is driven (alright, dragged) by individuals. They don’t and can’t do much but talk, but in this lies their agency. They choose the memories they tell themselves. Most films which deal with memory deal with its extremes; characters are stoic or hysterical. It is alienating to forget the past.
Here, remembrance alienates. Hernán alone remembers everything and he is stunted, dreamless and alone. It is not clarity but confusion through which he and Jessica connect. The plot proceeds to the extent that her memory fails, and by the end it is irrelevant whether the sounds she hears, people she meets and the pasts she remembers are real or not. This is freedom; this is displacement. Weerasethakul draws no distinction.
As he was shooting “Memoria” one morning, the booms disappeared. He slept soundly that night, freed from his own experience.