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‘Memoria’: What you hear is what you get

That’s assuming Tilda Swinton’s character in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film actually does hear something

Tilda Swinton in "Memoria."Neon

The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of the world’s leading filmmakers. For the first two-thirds or so of “Memoria,” it’s easy to see why.

Weerasethakul’s latest film, “Memoria” begins a one-week run at the Coolidge Corner Friday.

The movie begins with a sound. We can’t see its source. It’s like the krump of a mortar shell being fired. Or it might be distant thunder. A woman lying in bed is wakened by it. Over the course of the movie, she will hear the sound again, never predictably, and with increasing frequency. Later she will describe it to a sound engineer, who’s trying to help her determine what it was. She likens it to “an enormous ball of concrete hitting a wall surrounded by seawater.”


The woman’s name is Jessica. Is she imagining the sound? Is hearing it a sign of some larger issue she might be having with reality? We don’t wonder this. We accept the sound as real. We’ve heard it, too. We also accept the sound as real because Jessica is played by Tilda Swinton. Over many decades of Swinton performances, doubt has not been something audiences associate with her. No, it’s Jessica who wonders this, and Swinton looks even more angular than usual and increasingly troubled. She gives a finely subtle performance.

The fineness and subtlety are in keeping with Weerasethakul’s filmmaking. “Memoria” is unhurried and quiet. There’s hardly any music, and most of what there is occurs within the story. Sound and its layerings matter a great deal, and not just that krump: wind, traffic, sirens, car alarms, street noises generally, howler monkeys, the rasp of scales being scraped off fish.

The movie has its own absorbingly uninsistent rhythm, a counterpart to its cool, detached look. The pacing isn’t slow or languorous. It’s unhurried, which is different. Weerasethakul likes extended takes. They’re life happening rather than life being manipulated. Cutting would be an intrusion, a distraction. For much of the movie, the camera is static. Long and medium shots predominate. There may not be a single close-up.


Narrative is incidental at best, though details emerge. Jessica lives in Medellín, Colombia. So does her sister, who’s married and has a son. Is there a significance to the city being one notoriously associated with drug trafficking? Not at all. The point is that Jessica is an outsider — not just in her nationality but in who she fundamentally is. (An aside: a Thai director, an English actress, a Colombian setting — welcome to globalization.)

Spaces interest Weerasethakul far more than events do. The spaces are by no means monumental or spectacular — a hospital corridor, the recording studio where Jessica tries to explain the sound, a library reading room, a pathology lab, a restaurant, several city plazas, an archeological site, a warehouse full of flowers (all right, that one is a bit spectacular) — but the camera inhabits them in a way that makes the spaces feel vivid, even indelible. They have an understated magic.

“Memoria” isn’t a film about explanation. You get caught up in it. You don’t ask why. You don’t wonder what’s going on, what will happen next. You just accept it. You trust Weerasethakul. Until about the 100-minute mark (the runtime is 136 minutes), he justifies that trust. Then things begin to falter. Higher meanings, though without explanations, are reached for. Ponderous truths are uttered. Anticlimaxes accumulate. Something very unexpected, and quite silly, happens. Or is it a hallucination, this one visual? A film that’s been intriguingly, even satisfyinglyoblique takes things several steps further, past opaque, and well into obscure. Might it be that that’s what the krump Jessica hears is, the sound of obscurity?




Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Starring Tilda Swinton, Elkin Díaz, Juan Pablo Urrego, Agnes Brekke. At Coolidge Corner. 136 minutes. PG. In English and Spanish, with subtitles.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.