Shown anywhere else other than at the Cannes Film Festival and like-minded environs, Memoria would play as nearly pitch-perfect parody of an art film. Arid, potted with risible minimalist dialogue, positively stewing in its own creative amazingness and with Tilda Swinton, no less, in the leading role, this seventh feature from Thai-brow pet Apichatpong Weerasethakul had the Cannes premiere crowd on its feet applauding for minutes after its world premiere. But you could easily imagine other viewers seeing bits of it and believing it something that was made for easy laughs on Saturday Night Live.
One person’s pretentions are another’s red meat, and there are few cinematic practitioners of this sort of highfalutin gobbledygook these days more lauded than “Joe” (the director’s nickname), who won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and can do no wrong with his constituency.
The addition of Swinton to his circle, as well as his move into English dialogue, could expand his audience somewhat. But her performance here might be her most repressed and inexpressive, so up in her own shell is Jessica, a British woman in the unlikely settings of Medellín and Bogota, Colombia, where she tends to a flower-growing business and looks after her ailing sister in a hospital.
Still, the characters here play a distant second to the noises Jessica hears from time to time. Out of nowhere comes a big and startling thump, loud enough to be alarming but heard only by her. In her own somnolent, unhurried way, she gets this looked into by a sound engineer, who tries to re-create the noise, but don’t get too excited about the prospect of a mystery story here; this is a film in which execution of a single panning shot represents a big stylistic deal.
The mystery, such as it is, lies within. There are long scenes in which Jessica just sits alone, waiting for the noise to recur, and she hears it again at a restaurant in the presence of her sister and the latter’s husband, who don’t notice a thing. There will certainly be debates among the faithful about what these noises are and why they occur.
Are they messages being sent from the past? Is God sending her early warnings of things to come, ominous portents of destruction, signals from the ancients or merely the Earth complaining about being disemboweled, such as we see happening during the construction of a massive tunnel?
Jessica’s cautious searching eventually leads her to an isolated house occupied by a man who values his privacy above all. He listens to this interloper for a good long time, and what comes out of their interchange reveals a woman stripped down to basics along with a man who has long since lost the desire to do anything but wait. For something is going to happen.
Faced with the unknown, the existential void, the threat of monsters who make a pounding noise once in a while to let us know they’re out there waiting, most people still go about their business.
All this takes two-and-a-quarter hours, largely because the filmmaker fills his work with the kind of things that directors mostly eschew — shots of waiting, listening, the rain falling, anything that amplifies the sense of stillness required to receive what one day will no doubt happen.
Memoria is high-minded titillation of a sort that happened to find favor with artistic sophisticates. But it still feels like a cute little game calculated to captivate a special few.