Monday, December 13, 2021

Do You Hear What I Hear? MEMORIA

How do you describe a sound you’d never heard before? In Thai director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, his latest entrancing and low-key magical realist film, a woman (Tilda Swinton) is awoken from uneasy sleep to the sound of a distant…something. Is it a boom? A rumble? A crash? A thunk? A pop? She wrestles with the description. Was it even real? Was she dreaming? Maybe it’s a hallucination? The film begins with this moment of destabilization, the sudden alarming blast of a noise—somehow loud and soft at once—forcefully awakening her to the soundscape around her. What must it feel like to be so aware of one of your senses, and yet simultaneously having suspicions of it creeping in? The film is tantalizingly stuck in that headspace with her. She, and the movie, are delicately adrift in and deeply aware of their world. She’s lost in a strange state, and a place unknown to her as a visitor to Columbia, and so primed to be receptive to all manner of new experiences and sensations anyway. Long sequences of aural contemplation and sonic destabilization follow, with the woman’s exhausted inquisitiveness a slow-motion implosion of energy and concentration. Throughout the course of Swinton’s career, she’s been a game avatar for all manner of art house director’s themes and tones. Here she matches up with Weerasethakul for his first non-Thai film. She fits perfectly into his attention and focus, somewhere between dreamy and precise, as she adjusts her posture and countenance to communicate a bone-deep weariness sinking into her determination to muddle through her days with this sound worming around her consciousness.

Weerasethakul’s made a career out of blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, concrete and abstract. Within the trappings of a distinctive art house style—a slow painterly photographer quality to his images, and a persistence of vision and tone sensitively balanced—he slips past the bounds of the expected and into the magic of the uncanny, the surreal, and sublime. His most famous Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is somewhere between a living wake and a grieving paranormal hallucination, or are its unreal encounters instead a poetic realism? A sleeping sickness drenches the haunting Cemetery of Splendor’s reveries. Tropical Malady’s shaman and Syndrome and a Century’s repetitions across space and time are further examples of the slipperiness of his worlds, with a porous boundary between the believable and unbelievable, the known and the unknown. There’s magic here. You’d never call one of those films predictable; they ask and reward patient attentiveness.

He’s a filmmaker whose every decision seems to come down to simple and powerful questions: Did you know a movie could show you this? Did you know a movie could make you hear this? Did you know a movie could make you feel like this? One emerges from his films like some of his characters: more attuned to the mysteries and potential in the world around us, on screen and off. In Memoria that’s especially true of the sound design surrounding the audience with an inviting, hypnotic lulling effect. It generates a heightened sense of sound, noises usually buried in the mix surfaced and made specific and legible. Breathing. Shuffling paper. Crinkling plastic. Objects placed on tables with soft thwacks. Buttons clicked. Wind in trees. Rain drops. There’s a tingling ASMR sensation underlying the film’s scenes, enhancing the effective envelopment of its design. Every sequence is a new aspect of character—Swinton meets people, has long conversations, learns new things. But each is also, in its way, a new meditation—on music, sleep, relationships, art, nature, anthropology, memory, and more—wrapped in the most tantalizing, engrossing relaxed tone.

An early highlight is a scene with a sound engineer who has agreed to help Swinton try reconstructing and identifying what she heard. We sit with this process as audio is played, looped, manipulated, repeated, tweaked, adjusted. He takes notes. They breathe slowly. We watch deep engaged listening and are drawn into the state ourselves. Later the boom will interrupt other scenes, a doctor will try to diagnose it, and, eventually, a magisterial moment of surrealism will sweep away your expectations of an easy answer. But for this early scene, Weerasethakul trains you to lean in, slow your breathing, focus closely, and let the sound surround you, consume you, as it brings you into its spell. By the time the film arrives at its astonishing final moments—an unassuming am-I-seeing-what-I-think-I’m-seeing? low-key dazzlement—I was marveling anew at his ability to make one think the world is full of deep magic ready to casually intone its signals in our lives, if only we open ourselves up to the possibility.

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