Credit: Courtesy Neon

Recently something happened to me that I hadn’t experienced in a while—I heard the sound of a telephone ringing outside my window. It sounded just as it did when I’d experienced this before, when I was younger and landlines were more common. It’s always a telephone ringing but muffled, like it’s coming from inside a home or car. A perfectly normal sound, yet trying to describe it, the uncanniness of only occasionally hearing it and in places where it seems unlikely one would be able to hear another person’s phone ringing, is surprisingly difficult, no less because I’m never sure whether what I’m hearing can be done so by others as well.

Something similar happens to Jessica (Tilda Swinton) in writer-director (and School of the Art Institute of Chicago alum) Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest masterpiece Memoria, screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on 35-millimeter through Thursday, April 21. The film opens with her being woken up by a loud, dull bang, which she initially supposes to be from construction happening by where she’s staying in Bogotá. Jessica is a Scottish expat and an orchidologist, living in Colombia near her sister and brother-in-law. (This marks a departure for Weerasethakul, as it’s the first feature he’s made outside his native Thailand.)

Jessica continues to hear this noise intermittently—for example, while out to dinner with her sister and her family, celebrating the former’s recovery from a cryptic illness that they’re discussing as possibly being due to her work researching a reclusive civilization; mysterious ailments are a commonplace phenomena in Weerasethakul’s films—and soon attempts to realize the sound with the help of an audio engineer, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego). Using a library of sound effects with humorously vague titles, Hernán is able to recreate Jessica’s sound, though he warns it won’t resonate (pun intended) as it does in actuality. 

As usual, Swinton gives an astonishing performance, lending nuance to Weerasethakul’s exquisitely subtle story; here especially she gives herself over to the director’s caprices. She’s less Tilda Swinton the art-house icon and more waking phantasm, a figure from Weerasethakul’s dreams, a vessel for his inviolable prophecies to take shape. Surmising Swinton to be the film’s star, however, would be to overlook its most important element: sound.

Neon, the film’s distributor, is employing a unique exhibition model for Memoria: it will screen in one-week increments at one location at a time, moving on to the next and then the next. Likewise, the film will never be released on home video or via any streaming platforms. Part of the reasoning behind this is to preserve the sanctity of the exhibition experience, which includes professional sound systems that allow for the film’s meticulous sound design to resonate—quite literally.

Memoria ★★
Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, PG, 136 min. Gene Siskel Film Center

“If you watch the film on TV or your laptop, you won’t hear most of the details,” affirmed Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, the film’s sound designer, in a recent interview with MUBI’s Notebook. “You can achieve that only in the theater; that’s a controlled environment.” Just as one goes to a show or a concert with the intention of seeing the performers live, one, too, must venture out to the theater to experience the film’s topliner in action. No one else in it can hear Jessica’s sound—only her and us, the audience, for whom the opening bang is as much a shock. Thus viewers are along for the ride, the only witnesses privy to Jessica’s delusion. “I think I’m going crazy,” she tells a new friend, an archaeologist (Jeanne Balibar) whom she meets at the hospital where her sister had been staying. “You are,” the friend replies. “And me, too. It’s not the worst thing to be.” 

The recurring motif of the inexplicable bang, which sounds like it’s wrapped in a sweater, per Jessica’s description of it, is based on Weerasethakul’s real-life experience with exploding head syndrome. It’s exactly what Jessica is experiencing, random bursts of sound inaudible to anyone else. In interviews he sounds markedly distressed that he’s unable to explain the sound in question, a dilemma that permeates Memoria. Interestingly, this causes what should be his most accessible film to date, his first in English (and also in Spanish) with a recognizable star, to feel even more impenetrable than his previous, similarly opaque tone poems (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Cemetery of Splendor). 

If the first two-thirds of the film convey Jessica’s, and by extension Weerasethakul’s, frustration with the phenomenon, the last section embraces the uncanniness, both inherent to it and wholly outside of it, expanding the film’s purview to embrace the haunting reverberations of memories singular and collective. Jessica travels further into Colombia’s mountainous region—a persistent theme throughout Weerasethakul’s films being the delineation between urban and rural spaces—where she again meets Hernán (​​Elkin Díaz), this time as an older man who lives a modest life in the country. 

Just as Jessica begins to embrace the unknowingness of what she’s experiencing, so, too, might viewers relinquish the incessant need to understand what’s happening. This is par for the course with Weerasethakul’s films, which utilize an inscrutable logic to beguiling effect. But Memoria somehow feels different: More elusive, yet even more enveloping, typified by a scene toward the end where Hernán and Jessica’s memories meld in a sublimely intimate moment. It’s revealed around that point what the mysterious bang may be, a truly audacious deviation from the narrative up to then.

There’s a certain cause and effect to these final revelations, which impacts the archaeologist friend’s nearby excavation. This idea of connection between seemingly (and maybe even actually) disparate occurrences is at the heart of the film and Weerasethakul’s entire oeuvre. It may take months, years, perhaps a lifetime to fully understand the impact of this singular work—or, more provocatively, it might not be something we ever fully grasp, yet another thing about this mysterious world that so maintains its deeply held secrets but bears so freely the scars of its collective memories. Maybe we all hear the telephone ringing sometimes.