Written & Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Memoria is difficult to talk about because it really isn’t a movie in how we typically define such things. It’s filmed on a camera, there are actors and a script, but in terms of narrative, it’s glacially slow. Memoria is a filmed meditation, and because of that, it can be frustrating at times. I know I didn’t enjoy my entire time with the picture, yet some moments took my breath away. I have to assume this is the desired outcome from the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This is a movie about creeping existential dread that never allows its protagonist to fully define or name what is causing this feeling inside them.
Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is a Scottish expatriate living in Colombia running a flower-selling business. She travels from her home in Medellin to Bogota to visit her sister Karen who is sick in the hospital. One night, while sleeping, Jessica is awoken by a loud booming noise. Something about the noise strikes at her core, and she continues to experience strange sensory issues hinting at a possible disease. Moreover, the sound seems real as we see a parking lot full of cars have their alarms triggered just after she hears the noise. So Jessica begins a journey to discover what happened to her and what this is.
To begin understanding Memoria, we have to focus on Jessica and how she appears to be detached from the normal flow of time. The movie is strange from the start, but around a third of the way through the film, she’s told by Karen that someone Jessica believed was dead is alive. When Jessica visits the recording studio where a technician helped her recreate the sound, no one has any memory of a “Hernan” working there. There is a seemingly out-of-sync scene where Jessica sits with her brother-in-law to sign a death certificate. You could infer that it is Karen’s, yet we see her a few scenes later out of the hospital and talking about recovering. The audience is in Jessica’s place, unsure of what is happening, rootless & wandering.
One of the most interesting moments of the movie is when Jessica sits with Hernan and tries to detail the sound, and he goes through a digital library of recordings to match it. She manages to describe the noise as a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater” and “a rumble from the core of the Earth.” Hernan does seem to stumble across a strong approximation that causes her to zone out, but it doesn’t help her understand why any of this is happening. This could be seen as an extension of our own daily existence, trying to find meaning out of events disconnected from our trajectory, distractions & noises from the external that we can become fixated on to the detriment of ourselves and loved ones.
Weerasethakul derives the concept of this film from an experience he had hearing a strange sound that woke him. It’s known as Exploding Head Syndrome and is a condition where a person cannot get sleep because of a loud crashing or boom noise in their head. No one else hears the noise, so it exists purely in the sufferer’s mind. But Weerasethakul also doesn’t really care about the science or specifics. He’s much more interested in creating an atmosphere and a sensory experience. As a result, the viewer will eventually feel the same sense of disconnection as Jessica and give themselves up to the flow of presented images and sounds.
There’s a hunger in humanity to find answers to everything. That has often served the species well, creating vast avenues of revolutionary science and expanding our understanding of the world. Yet, there are always parts of the universe and our own existence that we will find no answers to in life. Tragedy can strike with unexpected swiftness that we are left reeling, trying to understand why. But no answers will ever come, so what do we do with that. How do we live life in the face of uncertainty and the endless unknown?
Jessica lives aimlessly by the end of the film. She’s become interested in the ancient indigenous people of Colombia and studies bones recovered by anthropologists. Eventually, she’s wandering through the jungle itself and meets a man named Hernan, who is not at all the same man she met at the recording studio. She comes to a greater spiritual realization through him but does not fully conclude what is happening to her. The natural world has been upended, and Weerasethakul poses questions about our relationship with its destruction and future. Memoria is a dense & complex movie and one I would not blame most audiences for not enjoying. However, it’s an experience unlike much else in cinema; it fully understands film as a sensory experience and tells its story through that mode.