The first time Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) hears the sound, it awakens her in the middle of the night. Disturbed, or at least confused, she gets out of bed and wanders through her dark apartment, at one point catching a ghostly glimpse of herself in a mirror. (It’s no coincidence that she shares her name with a character from Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 chiller I Walked With A Zombie.) The sound doesn’t recur that night… although something unknown sets off multiple car alarms, which collectively form a distinctly musical rhythm before switching off one by one. Does Jessica hear this strange symphony? That’s unclear, but her sense of things happening just beyond the limits of perception, as if another reality were layered beneath this one, is just beginning.
For Apichatpong Weerasethakul—the Thai filmmaker affectionately known to cinephiles simply as “Joe”—this is simply how the world works. Virtually all of his films, from Tropical Malady to the Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, have explored liminal spaces, suggesting the possibility of another plane of existence (often in the jungle) that we can’t fully understand. Still, Joe’s unique amalgam of mundane and uncanny reaches previously unscaled hypnotic heights with Memoria, a film very loosely inspired by his own experience with a bizarre phenomenon known as “exploding head syndrome.” Medical science doesn’t yet know what causes it, and Joe, as an artist, couldn’t care less. Instead, he asks: What might it signify? Not since Todd Haynes’ Safe has a murkily understood, possibly psychosomatic ailment been reconceived in so haunting and unforgettable a fashion.
Viewers unfamiliar with this director’s approach, and unaware that he’s never previously worked with a well-known star, might get the wrong idea early on. Although Jessica’s eventually revealed to be a botanist of some sort, she briefly takes on the role of amateur detective, seeking an answer to the mystery of that odd sound she heard. Memoria devotes more than 10 riveting minutes to her meeting with Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer who attempts to recreate the sound from her verbal description, manipulating various files from an effects library. “It’s like… a big ball of concrete… that falls into a metal well… which is surrounded by seawater,” Jessica tells him, rejecting his initial efforts as insufficiently earthy. This lengthy trial-and-error tweaking unmistakably mirrors the artistic process generally, and in fact the only notable result, once Hernán replicates the sound to Jessica’s satisfaction, involves his using it as the foundation for an electronica track. She has no particular goal in mind, and the film never becomes an X-Files-ish paranormal quest.
Instead, Jessica spends a lot of time just wandering around Bogotá, where her sister (Agnes Brekke) is hospitalized with an illness that’s never quite specified. This is the first feature Joe has shot outside of his native Thailand, and expat life—being in a country, but not of it—is among the many porous boundaries he lightly examines here. Although Jessica lives in Medellín, and may have for some time, she nonetheless exhibits the respectful curiosity of an outsider. Memoria watches her gaze at paintings, listen to a jazz quartet, witness the excavation of skeletons from a tunnel. Occasionally, the sound intrudes. Mostly, it doesn’t. Joe isn’t apolitical, by any means, but browbeating isn’t his style; the sole, very oblique suggestion of blinkered privilege here has Jessica’s sister express guilt about an injured dog that she’d dropped off at the vet and then completely forgotten about after getting sick. As for Colombia’s painful history, well, she’ll learn about that from Hernán.
No, not the sound engineer. Or maybe it is. Throughout the film, in the smallest and most innocuous of ways, Joe implies that everything may not be as it seems. One early shot of Jessica picking up her nephew—a moment with so little apparent bearing on anything (the kid’s neither seen nor mentioned again for nearly an hour) that it’s easy to just forget about—sees her gingerly prod the ground with one foot, as if wondering whether it’s really solid. Her introduction to a medical anthropologist (Jeanne Balibar) gets kicked off when the woman asks her to please get up from her plastic waiting-room-style chair, which turns out to be part of a row of seats that Jessica hadn’t noticed is directly blocking a door, employed for that purpose because the lock is broken. (Behind that unnoticed door: skeletons.) Eventually, genuine weirdness rears its head. Jessica refers to the death of someone who her sister and brother-in-law insist is very much alive, and a bunch of guys at the studio where she met with Hernán say that nobody by that name or description has ever worked there.
Another filmmaker might have assembled such anomalies into a Twilight Zone-esque narrative, but, again, that’s not Joe’s style. They’re just tremors, foreshocks. Memoria’s stunning second half follows Jessica into the country, where she encounters a middle-aged man who’s also named Hernán (Elkin Díaz), and who claims to remember everything that’s ever happened to him, along with some things that haven’t. Likening himself to a hard drive on which records are stored, he soon decides that Jessica constitutes an antenna. What follows is a lacerating act of transference in which she verbally relives his traumatic childhood memories, responding emotionally as if they were her own. Simultaneously acknowledging artistic appropriation’s unseemliness and its transformative power, this extraordinary sequence marries sublimely simple performances (Swinton surrenders herself entirely to Joe’s vision) with richly expressionistic sound design, building to a revelation about the mysterious sound that at first seems ambiguously grim and then becomes… something else.
To reveal anything more would be criminal—you’ll need to see and especially hear it for yourself. Neon, the film’s U.S. distributor, infamously announced a release plan that will slowly take Memoria from city to city, one theater at a time; they claim that it’ll never be available to view at home, in any format. Odds are that won’t hold (critics have already received DVD screeners, which Neon initially said weren’t forthcoming), but this genuinely is a film that you want to see on the big screen if you can—not so much for the images as for the sound, and ultimately not even so much for the sound as for the silence. There’s something uniquely intense about hearing an entire audience remain utterly still during a movie’s transporting final minutes, afraid to cough or squeak their seat’s rusty springs or even breathe too loud, for fear of breaking the spell. Memoria inspires that kind of rapture. Experience its full dynamic range.