Sleepless Nights

Amy Taubin on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Memoria, 2021, 35 mm, color, sound, 136 minutes. Jessica (Tilda Swinton).

FIRST, WE SEE A ROOM. It is dark, too dark to make out details or even the colors hinted at in various shades of gray. There seems to be a bed and perhaps a person asleep under the covers. Just when your eyes are intent on the little that can be seen, you hear—could it be?—a sonic boom, a sound so loud and dense that it vibrates through your entire body. When we say a film is kinetic, we are usually describing the effect of its images on the viewer. But the kineticism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria is auditory. So overwhelming is its impact that it would be ridiculous to say we watched or saw this movie. No: We listened to it, and the listening was accompanied by seeing. I cannot think of another film in which this is the case from beginning to end, except perhaps Ken Jacobs’s Blonde Cobra (1963) or Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993). But what we hear in those movies are primarily words—not the flutter of bird wings, the cranking of a gearshift, the hum of a refrigerator, the hundreds of everyday noises that we pay no mind to in films or our lives but are alert to in Memoria, because less than a minute after the first image appears, we hear a sound later described by Jessica (Tilda Swinton), the person sleeping in the darkened room, as that of “a concrete ball dropped into a metal container in, perhaps, the ocean.”

In a beautiful and useful book about the making of Memoria, Apichatpong describes Jessica as being like a character from Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) transported to Colombia. Jessica is indeed wraithlike and troubled by this mysterious sound, which no one else can hear. Recently widowed, she is in Bogotá to visit her sister, who has been hospitalized for an undefinable illness she believes may have to do with a dog in a dream or with her anthropological investigations of a group of Indigenous people who do not wish to share their secrets. Jessica will later see a dog in the street that may be following her, but stray animals are everywhere. She will meet an archaeologist (Jeanne Balibar) who takes her to a dig where construction of a tunnel has been halted by the discovery of six-thousand-year-old human bones. In all these situations—fragments of a narrative about a woman in a place undergoing changes that could obliterate the past—she intermittently hears the sound of an explosion inside her skull, which no one else in the film experiences except an audio engineer named Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), who replicates Jessica’s big bang by doctoring a track from a file of stock movie sound effects. Apichatpong anchors Memoria in cinema history by shooting the image in 35 mm, but the sound, recorded and mixed digitally, is of the present moment and the future. I thought of Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), where the 16-mm image of a loft as dusty and dilapidatedly furnished as most of the interiors in Memoria is kineticized not by the slowly changing perspective of the zoom lens but by the sine wave on the audio track, which over some forty minutes gradually ascends from a low rumble to a car-alarm pitch. The sound stripe on 16-mm-film prints never fully captures original analog sound recordings, and so the interplay of image and sound constructed by filmmakers like Snow and even Jean-Luc Godard, who worked in sonically superior 35 mm, cannot compete with the sensory richness of Memoria. Lucky Apichatpong to live in two technological worlds.

Eventually, Jessica travels from the city to a forest where she meets another man named Hernán (Elkin Díaz), who, like the much younger title character in the Borges story “Funes the Memorious,” remembers every detail of everything that has happened in his lifetime. More than that, Hernán can hear in inanimate objects the voices of people who lived and died ages ago. He describes himself as a hard disk, and when Jessica begins to channel words and sounds from his past that she at first thinks are her own memories, he tells her she is an antenna. By then, they’ve drunk a lot of Hernán’s home brew, and as they sit together and listen, Apichatpong leaves them to show us the forest (which has been a haven for something that I won’t give away, except to say that it could be a tribute to Latin American magic realism), the mountains, the slow-moving clouds, and the sky—images that, like Jessica’s ear-piercing sound, now miraculously vanished, bring us near the condition we call transcendence. The credits roll, accompanied by a deluge of rain.

Memoria will play in theaters “forever,” screening in one city at a time for one week at a time. It will not be streamed in the immediate future, as very few people own the high-end sound bars that would do it justice—and those who do could be charged with disturbing the peace. The film runs at IFC Center in New York from December 26 to January 1.

This review appears in Artforum’s January 2022 issue.