An Existential Film About the Oddities of Modern Life

Memoria channels a universal experience: the feeling that something is cosmically out of whack.

Tilda Swinton standing before a glass room in "Memoria"
Neon

The first thing the viewer hears in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria is a loud but distant thud. The vague sound stirs Jessica Holland (played by Tilda Swinton) from her sleep and then begins to haunt her. Over the next two hours and 15 minutes, Jessica tries to understand what it is that she keeps hearing, a distracting noise seemingly perceptible only to her. That story line might read like mundane horror, but Weerasethakul’s films are not so easily pegged to one genre; Jessica’s journey encompasses romance, family drama, science fiction, and deep philosophical debate.

“It’s like … a big ball of concrete … that falls into a metal well … which is surrounded by seawater,” Jessica tells a sound engineer, trying to describe the unusual clang so that he can re-create it for her. Jessica’s aural odyssey, set in Colombia, has real-life inspiration—Weerasethakul has suffered from “exploding head syndrome,” the very cinematic-sounding sleep disorder that involves hallucinating loud noises. But the existential mystery of Memoria is universally applicable. Weerasethakul is unpacking a sensation everyone has probably experienced at one point in their life: the feeling that something is cosmically out of whack.

Not long after hearing the thud for the first time, Jessica is crossing the street when she hears another bang—only this time, it’s a bus backfiring, and everyone around her freezes with surprise as well. One person dives to the ground in fear and then runs away when he realizes his error, possibly out of embarrassment. But the strangeness of his behavior cannot be immediately dismissed. In another sequence, at night, stationary cars in a parking lot start to beep their alarms one by one, as if roused by some unseen force.

Tilda Swinton's character speaking to a sound engineer in "Memoria"
Neon

All of these scenes, plus many other disconnected moments throughout the movie, feel like “glitches in the Matrix,” the kinds of oddities that can pile up without any real explanation. As she digs deeper to try to define her noise, Jessica, a Scottish expat, travels throughout Colombia, where she runs a flower business, moving between Medellín, Bogotá, and the countryside in search of answers. Weerasethakul is not a plot-heavy storyteller, and this is not a thriller with a dark scheme waiting to be uncovered. But Memoria still offers more answers than one might expect, even if they are fanciful and oblique.

That approach is a hallmark of Weerasethakul’s filmmaking, which commonly blends fantasy narratives with queries about the pressures of modern existence. His best-known work, the Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is an elegiac consideration of a man’s final days as he speaks with ghostly figures that emerge from the jungle; it’s kooky and serene stuff, in which someone might converse about day-to-day existence with a catfish. Weerasethakul’s movies have a trancelike quality, sometimes practically encouraging the viewer to nod off for a couple minutes, but very few artists like him are working in cinema today.

The unorthodox release strategy for Memoria, which is finally unfurling in the United States this month after COVID-19 delays, therefore makes sense. Rather than receiving the traditional limited release and online rollout that many acclaimed international movies get, Memoria will be traveling around the country road-show-style, playing exclusive one-week engagements in cinemas all the way into the fall. The plan guarantees that the film will be available in more than just the biggest cities with robust art-house theaters. Beyond that, it’s a way to compel people to see the movie projected on a big screen.

I highly recommend that experience. Memoria was one of my favorite films of 2021, but I cannot imagine it having the same power on a small screen, given its languorous pace. It’s the kind of movie you need to be locked in a dark room with, while obsessing over its idiosyncratic details and sharing your curiosity with an engaged audience. Yes, one of its most thrilling scenes involves Jessica sitting in a room, listening to various sounds with an engineer; another sees her merely sitting at a table, in meditative congress with a man she meets in the countryside. Both moments had me on the edge of my seat on first watch, and the revelations Weerasethakul drops in the final act had me yelping with excitement. Memoria is an immersive cinematic creation; it deserves an equally immersive viewing experience to fully enjoy it.