Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (say that name three times fast, or once slowly for that matter) has been showered with awards over his 20-odd year career, and Memoria is no exception, garnering six awards and nineteen nominations from places like Cannes, Ghent and Chicago, where it won a Gold Hugo! (I was unable to ascertain why the Chicago International Film Festival awards Gold and Silver Hugos but Mr. W has three previous nominations with this film being his first win.
This is a spare, moody, slow-pa—ok, it sucked.
I kid. Sorta. The Boy and I didn’t hate it per se it but it spurred some discussion about why the tactics used here have worked so well in other films and didn’t land for us here.
The story is that Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is—well, here let me give you the capsule from the movie’s website:
Ever since being startled by a loud ‘bang’ at daybreak, Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is unable to sleep. In Bogotá to visit her sister, she befriends Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), an archaeologist studying human remains discovered within a tunnel under construction.
Jessica travels to see Agnes at the excavation site. In a small town nearby, she encounters a fish scaler, Hernan (Elkin Diaz). They share memories by the river. As the day comes to a close, Jessica is awakened to a sense of clarity.
Huh. Well, we didn’t guess that she was in Bogotá to visit her sister. I didn’t get that she was traveling to see Agnes—it actually seemed to me like she was going out to try to solve the mystery of the big badaboom. I didn’t really get that she wasn’t able to sleep until she explicitly says so well into the picture. (The handling of time is murky, deliberately, I’m sure.) So in the movie’s 135 minute runtime, I got about 40% of these six sentences. And not a whole lot else.
The Boy and I have been captivated by a number of slow-moving films in our day, setting aside Kubrick and Lean whose movies tend to have big payoffs, there’s Stalker, which is much longer than this film and has shots as long or longer, though generally with some motion to the camera or the characters, or some revelatory or purposeful intent. In this movie, you watch the fish scaler take a nap. I mean, there’s a purpose to it, but…oy. The camera sits there for I don’t know how long. Another scene takes place where Jessica listens to music through headphones—you hear none of it.
And that’s the whole movie, really: A camera sitting in one place, with one very static image.
There’s a scene where Jessica stops by a classroom (?) where a jazz combo is playing and the camera holds on her, in the midst of this small audience, as she listens to the combo playing. And listens and listens and listens. Now, the longer you hold a shot on a character observing something, the greater the expectation you create for the reverse shot. The audience wants to see what’s so damn fascinating! An Airplane!-style riff at this point would’ve been to reverse the camera to reveal everyone was just looking at a radio, e.g. This two-minute Saturday Night Live/Steve Martin sketch plays on the concept by never switching to the reverse.
In fact, I can think of way more comedic uses of the technique than dramatic. And horror uses, where it usually results in disappointment (because the reverse shot is of the monster, and…monsters are hard and usually disappointing). In drama, it’s typically used to show a character’s emotional change, a curve up or down as the character has various realizations about things and becomes more despondent (usually) or happier. It’s also not typically done as a medium-shot in a crowd scene, because it can be hard to read changes from that distance.
Maybe that was the point: Maybe we were being shown Jessica’s increasing alienation from reality. But if that’s what was going down, it was too subtle for either me or The Boy to pick up. And that’s only one type of static shot. There’s another where she’s looking at an art installation (I think that’s what it was) for a good several minutes, and again the camera is at a medium-to-long range so…I mean, alienation is a thing you’re communicating with that, but do you really want to alienate your audience?
I would describe the story thusly: Jessica hears a loud noise that wakes her up one night. She lives her life not knowing whether the noise is real or not. Further, people she interacts with seem to disappear not just physically but from the memories of everyone around her. Is she crazy or is something else going on?
Here’s another technique that works against the film: The mysterious noise is often followed by car alarms going off in a pattern. One starts, then another, and this builds till all the alarms are going off. Then they die off one-by-one until they’ve all stopped.
Now, for myself, when a film director shows me something and there is no character around to observe it, I take it as literal. There can’t be an unreliable narrator if there’s no narrator. The car alarm symphony is shown from a completely neutral location the first time, signaling to me that it’s actually happening.
The second time we hear the noise, Jessica is walking along the street and the entire city appears to be reacting to the noise. I took that as proof that the noise was real. There was a little sleight-of-hand there, potentially, though, and maybe everyone was reacting to something else unrelated to the noise. But there’s an entire character that just vanishes from the story, too, and who never existed according to the other characters (including complete strangers who would have to have known) so in retrospect I would have to say that Jessica is hallucinating the whole time.
I don’t think you could even argue very strongly that her sister is real, or the archaeologist, or any other part of the story for that matter. Why am I sitting here?
In the long run, this struck me very much like Under The Skin in that it’s basically a B-movie plot that’s done in such an abstract way that critics finally allow themselves to enjoy it. For myself, I kept waiting for there to be something—anything—on these long shots to justify them. Even as studies in acting, the camera is too far, or Swinton is too subtle (for me) to enjoy.
But I suppose that’s the kind of thinking that keeps me from winning a Gold Hugo.