Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria” starts with a bang, which is not at all typical of the infamously understated Thai auteur, making his return to Cannes competition 11 years after winning the Palme d’Or for “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Nor is working with an internationally recognized movie star, which the director does this time around, enlisting Tilda Swinton as a kind of stand-in for himself in this oblique and sometimes taxing excursion into the jungles of Colombia.
Swinton plays a foreign-born orchidologist plagued by a strange condition whereby it sounds as if a gong is ringing inside her head — or else a wrecking ball is smashing loudly against a steel drum somewhere off in the distance. The opening bang, therefore, is a literal one, not some big set-piece or action sequence, lest you think the independent art-house director has sold out and decided to go all Hollywood for what’s been misleadingly described as his English-language debut. While Swinton does speak a bit of English, most of her dialogue is delivered in carefully articulated Spanish, as Jessica tries to figure out what the heck she’s hearing.
Apparently, the disturbing sound — which echoes no fewer than 55 times over the course of the film — was inspired by a recurring noise that Weerasethakul himself experienced, thereby recalling the tinnitus and other (tropical) maladies that Pedro Almodóvar revealed in his recent Palme d’Or contender “Pain & Glory.” But here, rather than earning sympathy for having shared such a personal diagnosis, the director seems to be inflicting this rather obnoxious ailment on the audience, turning these loud, impossible-to-anticipate aural bursts into tiny terrorist attacks, interrupting an otherwise largely Zen-like viewing experience.
Weerasethakul’s films may shock at times, coaxing images out of nightmares and the darker corners of the subconscious, but they tend to do so quietly, leaving audiences to mull their mysteries to the sounds of insects and rustling leaves. Rather than limiting himself to what can be explained by science or logic, the director embraces the so-called supernatural: spells and spirits, invisible threats and animals that seem to possess a kind of menacing power only partway understood by humans (like the dog Jessica observes wandering a public square, or the red-eyed primates of “Uncle Boonmee”).
During the unhurried movie’s relatively accessible first hour and a half, Jessica could be a kind of 21st-century Mr. Hulot, saying little as she ambles about modern Medellín, surrealistically subdivided and framed in ways Jacques Tati might have appreciated. She spends her days either visiting her sister in the hospital or investigating orchid-threatening fungi in the university library. While hanging about one of these institutions, Jessica meets a professor, who invites her in to examine a 6,000-year-old human skeleton. With the academic’s blessing, she hesitantly stretches out a finger and probes the hole bored in the ancient skull. To citizens of the future, “modern medicine” will surely seem as primitive.
Rather than consult a doctor about her own condition, Jessica opts to visit one of her husband’s former students, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), who works in a recording studio. It’s a sign of the film’s unhurried sense of time that Jessica takes a seat and waits as he finishes listening to a piece of music. When it’s her turn, she does her best to describe the banging, as Hernan pulls samples from a library of movie sound effects to help re-create what she’s been hearing — a wonderful scene that plays like the audio equivalent of watching someone describe an intruder to a police sketch artist.
Hernan, who moonlights with a punk band called the Depth of Delusion Ensemble, then takes it upon himself to compose a piece of music that incorporates the noise. Weerasethakul withholds the melody from us, making it one of many things that may only exist in Jessica’s head. But even the young man’s existence might be in question, as Hernan is nowhere to be found when she returns to the studio some days later. But then Jessica decides to hit the road, leaving the clamorous city — with its blaring car alarms and police sirens — for the untamed Amazon. The noises follow her, and so does Hernan. Or maybe he’s been out there waiting for her all along. In either case, Jessica’s surprised to meet a friendly local fish scaler with the same name.
Their connection consumes the rest of the film, which grinds to a halt as she spends the next 45 minutes studying him. Hernan No. 2 (Daniel Giménez Cacho) claims to remember everything. “That’s why I never watch movies or television,” he says. It’s a curious thing for him to tell an orchid specialist, but it makes sense if we read Jessica as the director’s stand-in: a filmmaker questioning the power and limitations of his medium. Like this self-described human “hard disk,” cinema documents things for posterity, but there’s so much it cannot capture — a running theme throughout Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, where shadowed images have a way of bleeding into the background and we often doubt our own eyes. When Weerasethakul finally reveals the source of the noise, the explanation is even harder to believe.
In “Memoria,” the disruptive sounds Jessica hears are a wake-up call of sorts, forcing her to engage with those dimensions of the world humans are ill-equipped to explain: what lives on when someone dies, and the way places serve as a kind of fossil imprint of everything they’ve witnessed. To that old riddle, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?,” Weerasethakul might reply: Of course, and it’s been echoing there ever since. You just have to train yourself to listen.