Tilda Swinton in the movie “Memoria.” (Courtesy Neon/TNS)
Photo: Courtesy Neon, HO / TNS
Movies are meant to be experienced, not summarized, and some, including the hypnotic “Memoria” (opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on May 19), can scarcely even be described. The latest from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul revels in a kind of mystery that only cinema can create: a slow, deliberative immersion that seduces a patient viewer and likely frustrates an impatient one to no end. Fans of filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Yasujirð Ozu will recognize a kindred spirit here, a transcendentalist style that is austere and nonjudgmental.
Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, a Scottish botanist living in Colombia. In the middle of the night, Jessica hears a loud noise — a “thump!” or a “chonk!” — that rouses her from bed, wondering what the sound’s source might be. It will lead her to a recording engineer, who tries to re-create the sound for her. It dominates her conversations with those she knows and loves, who float in and out of the film like ghosts. Eventually, it leads her to a verdant jungle clearing, where she spends a long time chatting with a quiet man content to scale fish.
“Memoria” doesn’t really move toward answers; when it provides them, they are wonderous and strange, and in no hurry to tie anything up for the viewer. This is a film of powerful stillness. The camera barely moves. Instead, it holds characters under its gaze in a series of medium shots, asking us to observe what happens around them: people passing on the street, a tree blowing in the wind, a torrential rainfall. We study each scene as we might a painting, with one big difference: sound.
Rated PG: for thematic elements, brief mild language
When: May 19-22
Where: Lynn Wyatt Theater, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5500 Main
Language: English, Spanish with English subtitles
(out of 5)
This is a movie you hear as much as you see, which is appropriate, given the subject. That rain beats down on the street like a million little drums. When Jessica visits the recording studio, the engineer (Juan Pablo Urrego) gets painstakingly specific in trying to re-create Jessica’s sound — but still can’t quite get it.
Only Jessica can hear it. Its source remains unknown. “I think I’m going crazy,” Jessica laments, but she never really acts like it. Perhaps she’s dead, a spirit wandering the Earth. Perhaps she’s dreaming. “Memoria” masterfully explores subjective experience through one character’s senses, calmly creating a mystery through one simple but elusive tone.
By the time Jessica settles in to sit with the man with his fish (Elkin Diaz), “Memoria” has already begun to cast its spell. As they sit together, a gurgling creek behind them, the trance deepens. They seem to be discussing past lives; at one point, the man appears to die for a bit, his eyes open, his face and body absolutely still. Then comes the moment that some will insist on labeling a “twist,” though it’s nothing so neat or tidy as that.
Swinton, embracing the film’s stillness, shows once again why she’s one of the bravest actors around. Here she brings her focus to an uncanny film that works more as a meditation than a story, a mood more than a sensation. “Memoria” rearranges your senses and makes the world feel different when you leave the theater.
Chris Vognar is a Houston-based writer.