Wednesday 12 January 2022

Wavelengths: "Memoria"

Admirers worried how the Thai writer-director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul would adapt once the festival-circuit moneymen had tempted him outside his homeland. Would a barrage of script notes and relentless budget queries sap his work of its essential Apichatpongness? Yet as the five-star reviews that greeted Memoria on its Cannes debut last year indicated, we need not have worried unduly. The new film retains (and expands upon) the mysticism that distinguished this filmmaker from the arthouse pack; again, Weerasethakul uses his camera to commune with other realms, other worlds, the intangible and immaterial alike. His starry new leading lady, Tilda Swinton, proves to be as reliable a barometer for this director as she was for Pedro Almodóvar when he branched out with his English-language debut The Human Voice. Weerasethakul has long been drawn to out-there scenarios, as in his Palme d'Or-winning masterpiece Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which tracked the peregrinations of a man turned monkey spirit. Memoria goes pretty far out-there, too - one of its foremost pleasures is watching a film shift shape before your very eyes - but it proceeds from its maker's most relatable startpoint yet: somebody being woken up by a crashing thud in the middle of the night. We've all been there, but this is just the first of a series of mysteries that befalls Swinton's Jessica, a Scotswoman visiting Colombia on the trail of rare orchids. One wet afternoon, she returns home to find what looks like blood on her driveway. There's a sudden rash of car alarms going off. Even amid the cool sanctuary of a gallery, she finds herself plunged into darkness. And that thud isn't going away, either. You'd forget about the orchids, too, if this happened to you. As she pivots towards a quest for answers, you wonder whether it's possible those moneymen have nudged Weerasethakul into directing a film that, with the most judiciously cut trailer, could be sold as a paranormal investigation, in a way a complete UFO like 2006's Syndromes and a Century couldn't. I'm being semi-serious when I say Memoria is the first of this director's films one might push towards the Conjuring crowd. At 136 minutes, it's only just longer than that franchise's second instalment, and it'd reset their dials after years of exposure to quiet-quiet-loud pablum.

For although Memoria features typically elegant and detailed framing from the director's regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the key to understanding it has less to do with sight than sound. Jessica's first call isn't to the rectory for an exorcist, but to a recording studio for an audio engineer, cueing a long early sequence where we sit as the character sits to listen to several minutes of a classical recording. Here, Weerasethakul starts to ask us a very different question to those others have traditionally asked: it's not "what does this sequence mean [within the context of Jessica's predicament]?", rather "how does it - and the collection of sounds contained within it - make you feel?". Memoria never feels like a commercial compromise, because it proceeds with that air of experiment: Jessica's efforts to narrow down the thud's source - to place it within the waking world, and eventually within the frame itself - prompts the kind of fiddly, borderline obsessive inquiry the movies have always excelled at (think The Conversation or Blow Out), but it also makes a guinea pig out of every onlooker. We soon intuit that the same sound can prompt wildly different responses in different contexts. What scares the dickens out of you when heard in bed at 3am might sound comparatively humdrum when eavesdropped in the middle of town in the middle of the day: it could just be the noise of an engine backfiring. But equally anybody used to the sound of gunfire might, upon hearing an engine backfiring, duck for cover or run for the hills. (The film replaces sight gags with sound gags: there's one very droll one involving a rainstorm.) We're also led to consider whether there isn't some element of confirmation bias in play. Like moviebuffs with the Wilhelm Scream, Jessica starts hearing that dull thunk everywhere once she's become aware of it. Her concern - which rapidly becomes ours, too - is why nobody else seems to notice. One of the mysteries of the universe Memoria gestures towards is that we're all wired up differently; each of us operates at our own distinct frequency.

It makes sense, then, that Weerasethakul should have armed himself with Swinton, the world's tallest hummingbird, a walking lightning rod. Memoria counts among the most prominent recent examples of a filmmaker using an actor as an instrument: Weerasethakul hangs Swinton out there, points her in certain directions (underground! To the jungle!), then studies her intently to see what she picks up. The answer: a lot. Her befuddlement, her perturbation - her sense that something's just off - doubles for ours in the audience; there are a couple of immensely effective, borderline-horror sequences where a woman who's generally as white as a sheet bumps up against something she can't explain in rational terms and somehow turns paler yet. Memoria makes us more sensitive, too. Reading those five-star first responses, you can get some feel for how the film had refreshed and sharpened senses that the bulk of the weekly releases only pummel and dull. To an otherwise banal shot of Tilda driving through the mountains, he adds just a decibel or two of white noise, enough to convince me that something was badly, perhaps even dangerously wrong with this vehicle. (Was I, too, starting to hear things?) One street scene, forcing us to listen doubly hard for Jessica's words above the traffic, should be prescribed on the NHS as a rehabilitation exercise for anybody deafened by TenetBy the time of a nocturnal survey of a market square - another visually simple set-up that nevertheless mixes music bleeding out of an adjacent bar, the cicadas chattering in the hedgerows, children playing off-camera and the crunch of the waffles Tilda and pal Jeanne Balibar are seen snacking on - I reckon I might also have been able to hear a pin drop in the row behind me, and got within a year of identifying the exact date of its manufacture.

One of Memoria's weirdest effects - and this is a film that has clearly been designed to overturn some of the usual moviegoing certainties, to mess with our heads in a good way - is that after a while I stopped concentrating on the (subtitled) dialogue. What makes this such a triumphant East-West transfer is that the film really does find its own language. Nothing has been lost in translation; the words matter less than the sounds. (The tentative quality of Tilda's Spanish - that of a woman searching for the right words, even before she can try attaching them to anything so indescribable as a sound - is more affecting than any single line of dialogue.) Weerasethakul has busied himself with installation work this past decade, exhibiting everywhere from Oslo to Sharjah, and Memoria does feel like a film that has emerged from that tradition more than any other - a project born of many hours of exquisitely fine tuning, undertaken with the intention of capturing and refocusing our ever more restless attention. Yet it stands as an immersive cinematic experience in its own right, with sequences where it genuinely sounds as though Weerasethakul has personally miked up everything visible within the frame, and then extended some state-of-the-art boom rig into the great beyond. The movie is that attuned to one of the fundamentals of existence; God knows how they're going to do the audio-described version. If you're planning on seeing Memoria in cinemas as it tours the country, pick the venue with the best sound system. If you're watching it at home at some later date, plug your headphones in. Your ears will thank you for it. And if you listen closely enough, so too will your soul.

Memoria opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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