Because sound is a vibration that, in theory, doesn’t die but simply drops below perceptual thresholds, 18th-century scientists speculated that every sound that had ever been produced on Earth was still out there, somewhere. More recently, researchers have speculated that cultures without analog technologies had recorded themselves by happenstance, accidentally embedding conversations into the lines of pottery, like the grooves of a record. If sound is a physical phenomenon then all that the voices of the past require to be heard is a receiver of sorts with storage capacity to bring them into the present.
This is the philosophical terrain that Thai master of slow cinema Apichatpong Weerasethakul navigates with his first (kind-of) English-language feature, Memoria. “Kind of” because our protagonist, Jessica (Tilda Swinton), spends much of the film speaking in a Spanish that she deferentially excuses for being poor but suits her purposes just fine. A Scottish orchid farmer traveling in Colombia, Jessica gets caught up in an unraveling mystery that centers the eruption of the arcane and spiritual into the modern world—not unlike Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives, only with a bit of a sci-fi, media-centric twist.
The story begins with Jessica hearing a sudden, overpowering boom in the wee hours of the morning, jolting her out of bed in her apartment in Medellín. Throughout, Weerasethakul’s modus operandi is to keep his characters in long shot and linger well after the event that other directors would cut on. His cuts feel almost like delayed reactions to the actions of the story. In Memoria, this logic of cause and delayed effect even extends to the world of the story. Well after Jessica has heard the boom and timidly peeked out her window for its origin in vain, we get an extended shot of a parking lot as all the car alarms abruptly trigger—perhaps a mysteriously belated reaction to whatever physical phenomenon caused the boom.
Such mysteries exist for Jessica as well as for the viewer, as Weerasethakul’s somnolent scenography restores a sense of the mystical to reality. Through her connections at the National University of Colombia, Jessica finds a sound engineer, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), who will help her determine what this sound is that she keeps hearing and that she describes as sounding like a huge ball falling into a container “surrounded by seawater.” They explore a bank of stock movie sound effects, eventually discovering something eerily close to the sound she’s been hearing. We spend a long time watching the pair simply listening, Jessica with bated breath, to the digital files, the stillness of the studio turning each subtly different boom into a reverberation that shocks the characters into stunned, contemplative silence.
That the aberrant sound can be found within a database of prefab movie sound effects comes off as a bit of a self-reflexive joke. While Weerasethakul’s slow-cinema aesthetic connotes seriousness, Memoria doesn’t lack for playfulness. Jessica’s discovery that her memories of reality are starting to differ from those around her carries a comic tinge, as in a debate with her sister (Agnes Brekke) over whether their acquaintance, “Andrés the dentist,” died last year or not. But the film is serious in its reflection on whether there’s a spirit world, even if it’s just a generalized worldly memory, that persists beneath the façades of urban modernity.
Swinton proves to be miraculously in sync with Memoria’s offbeat tone and pace, as Jessica comes off as mysterious as the noises she hears. Gaunt, soft-spoken, and seeming perpetually out of place, she suggests a specter. In one dialogue-free and nearly contextless scene, we catch her at an art gallery, mutely gazing at paintings of dark ghostly figures with glowing white eyes, who look somewhat like negative images of her—and not entirely unlike the spirits in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives. The constant mix of curiosity and trepidation that Swinton conveys helps to sustain the film’s engaging mystery.
Without spoiling too much, the enigma of the noises—which in Memoria’s most unsettling scene occur repeatedly while Jessica is at dinner and go unnoticed by her companions—leads her into the Amazon jungle, where an encounter with a man also named Hernan (Elkin Díaz), older but possibly the same Hernan who helped her replicate the sound that woke her from her slumber, begins to reveal what the vibrations in the ether signify. In some respects a trying sequence, for slowing the film to a crawl just as its reaching a narrative crescendo, the extended conversation with the older Hernan brings Jessica toward a confrontation with the horrors of the past that linger in the air and the stones on the ground.
It’s Memoria’s slow crawl toward its final revelations that opens us up to feeling the strangeness that lingers in the air of every one of its frames. Both Colombia and the jungle become akin to waking dreams, the characters moving though spaces as if in a kind of slumber and those spaces coming to seem disconnected from human activity. Again in a Weerasethakul film, we find spirits lurking behind the everyday world, but in Memoria, they might just be repressed memories emanating from a world that never actually forgets.