When orchid specialist Jessica, played by Tilda Swinton, visits her ailing sister in Colombia, she is haunted by a recurring “boom” sound that only she can hear. This eldritch sound—in that it terrifies her and is hard to describe—keeps Jessica from sleeping. The film follows Jessica as she ambles through Bogotá in a worsening state of insomnia, bringing the viewer with her.
Early in Jessica’s efforts to get a handle on her aural affliction, she consults with an audio engineer named Hernán to construct the noise on a sound mixing board. Faced with the futility of conveying an abstract sound, Jessica feeds Hernán descriptors like “earthy,” and “round,” in broken Spanish, which Hernán patiently maps onto an initial “thud.” Their awkward collaboration is surprisingly engaging, and the emotional payoff when Jessica finally recognizes the sound as her own is immense.
Following much fanfare at Cannes, it’s been hard for theatergoers to catch the film outside a smattering of urban arthouses. Initially, Weerasethakul planned to tour the film, “from city to city, theater to theater, week by week, playing in front of only one solitary audience at any given time”—an unprecedented release schedule. Though Neon, the film’s distributor, has condensed the film’s broadcast, Weerasethakul’s initial plan is laudable. It demonstrates a unified vision: a sound wave that reverberates through time, and passes through the world in a series of echoes, like a two-way radio picking up an unidentified broadcast.
In his films, Weerasethakul uses seemingly offhand comments and singular conversations about political topics to weave a delicate thread of social commentary without coming off as didactic. He has famously spoken out against the political oppression in his home country of Thailand, also gesturing to it in his films—the killing of communists mentioned in Uncle Boonmee, the precarious position of immigrants in Blissfully Yours.
This strategy is perhaps learned from years of self-censorship necessitated by strict, Hays Code-like speech and media regulations in his home country Thailand. In Memoria, he reflects on Columbia’s history of colonialism. “I’ve been wanting to know about all the violence that happened here, and the history of colonization—in a way, to reflect on my country,” Weerasethakul explains in an interview.
During a pivotal scene near the halfway point, Jessica’s sister, Karen, tells a cautionary tale about a failed colonizer. A man tried to bulldoze through an isolationist tribe’s region of the Amazon, as well as “colonize these people,” says Karen, but goes missing. Karen herself was previously hired to “investigate” the same tribe; doing so, her husband believed, caused her mysterious illness. The booming noise feels cosmically connected to this tribe, as Jessica is struck with an onslaught of booms echoing the tribe’s mention, underscoring the scene’s significance.
It is easy for subtext to overwhelm a film—think Aronofsky’s mother!—but Weerasethakul sneaks in commentary almost subliminally, never distracting from the film’s quiet beauty. “I knew that the political subtext would be there,” Weerasethakul explains. “I had to be careful as a foreigner in how to approach it, and be respectful to people’s memory…The awareness of the trauma is already there in the audience.”
Memoria also reflects Weerasethakul’s weariness of over-treating the psyche with modern psychiatric panaceas. In one scene, we see Jessica consulting a rural doctor on the outskirts of Bogotá. After the doctor offers a few likely explanations for the sound, including high blood pressure, lack of sleep, and hallucinations—“In this city there are many who suffer from hallucinations”—Jessica hints at acquiring a Xanax prescription. The doctor politely refuses, concerned that: “You will lose empathy, and no longer be moved by the beauty of this world. Or the sorrow of this world.” The doctor extends her concern for Jessica to an interest in the conditions that allow art to thrive: “Salvador Dalí understood the beauty of this world,” she instructs. What is at stake if Jessica loses her capacity to be moved? The creative potential to make beautiful art, the doctor suggests.
As the film follows Jessica’s anxious descent into insomnia, it seems to harvest this creative potential. Dalí famously used his paranoiac-critical method which induced a state of confusion and delirium, not unlike the state Jessica is in, to form creative connections. As it moves between intense and ethereal vignettes, the film brings the viewer into an insomniac state. Jessica’s inability to sleep becomes the film’s raison d’être—integral to the plot and realized in the film’s form.
When we finally witness someone sleeping in the film, sleep is represented as a kind of death. In the final act, Jessica interacts with a different man named Hernán, who tells her that his people do not dream. In a moment equal parts absurd and surreal, Jessica prompts: “Can you show me?”
He takes a beat, before lying supine in the grass and lapsing into glazed-eyed unconsciousness. Weerasethakul goes full “slow-cinema” mode as six minutes pass without dialogue and little camera movement, Hernán looking corpse-like as flies land on his body. He eventually twitches out of it and Jessica asks what the audience is wondering: “How was it?” “What?” he replies. “Death?” “It was alright.”
Though the scene holds the same shot for six minutes, I found myself fixed on Hernán’s face, looking for signs of life. Both suspenseful and eerie, the slowness of the shot gives the viewer space to ruminate on the parallels between death and sleep, alongside some of the main themes from the movie—insomnia, the dreamworld, creativity, and magical realism. Yet while I found myself gripped by long shots with little dialogue, I expect it won’t land for everyone. The loose plot and the scattered, phantasmagorical nature of much of the dialogue will intrigue some and alienate others, but I recommend taking the plunge.
In a world increasingly saturated by quickly digestible, on-demand media, I appreciate Weerasethakul’s commitment to the slower path. If we are still enough and listen closely, we too can “be moved by the beauty of this world.”
Upcoming Memoria showtimes can be found at their website here. The film will be playing at the Maysles Documentary Center and Museum of the Moving Image in May.