On the eve of what would have been David Bowie’s 75th birthday, Tilda Swinton told me that she had always considered him to be her spiritual “cousin”. Nowhere is this connection clearer than in Floria Sigismondi’s 2013 video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight), in which Bowie and Swinton play a suburban couple haunted by their alien-like alter egos – the ghosts of fame. Significant, too, that one of Swinton’s early starring roles saw her playing an extraterrestrial visitor in Friendship’s Death (1987), a film that could easily have been titled The Woman Who Fell to Earth.
Like Bowie, Swinton has always possessed an uncanny ability to meld the natural and the supernatural – the down-to-earth and the out-of-this-world. That’s a quality put to perfect use in the latest film from the Thai maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Indefinable in terms of plot, this Cannes jury prize winner (which became Colombia’s submission for the 94th Oscars this year) is a dreamlike cocktail that brings together human sensory experience, disrupted natural order, canine curses, exploding head syndrome, viral growths, ancient bones, modern machines, improvised jazz, geopolitical upheavals and the “invisible people” of the Amazon, all tinged by “the perfume of decay… a fermented wound”.
Swinton plays Jessica, a flower trader who, like Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton, is an anxious outsider, her face touched by the shadow of lonely desperation and the merest hint of horror. When Jessica hears a strange booming noise, she assumes it’s just building works. Out in the street, a cacophony of car alarms implies some unseen visitation. Yet this particular sound (“like a big concrete ball that falls into a metal well which is surrounded by seawater”) seems to be for Jessica’s ears only.
We are in Bogotá, where Jessica’s sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) is in hospital. Early scenes quietly establish a bond and a distance between these two – shared experience fractured by divergent perspectives. As the “rumble from the core of the Earth” continues to unsettle Jessica, she turns to a sound engineer whom she enlists to reproduce the noise, but who then disappears without trace, as if he were never there. Was he, like that enigmatic boom, a figment of her imagination? Or is Jessica somehow slipping between despoiled worlds, caught in the crossfire of contradictory narratives (she’s assured that someone she thought was dead is in fact alive and well)?
It says much about the strangely hypnotic nature of Memoria’s “slow cinema” aesthetic that we are willing to let possible answers simply hang in the air. From the extended opening shot that lingers long before Jessica wakes, to an eerily held closeup of an unblinking face caught in a death-like, dreamless sleep, the film is in no hurry to reveal its mysteries. As with his 2010 Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Weerasethakul leaves us trembling on the edge of uncertainty, providing just enough terra firma to keep the viewer engaged while leading them deeper into the realms of the unknown.
At times, Memoria felt to me like an unironic riposte to Barbet Schroeder’s 1972 pop-culture oddity La Vallée (AKA Obscured by Clouds), in which Bulle Ogier ventures into the New Guinean mountains in search of ecstatic truth. There’s certainly a powerful element of transcendence in Jessica’s encounter with a solitary time-slipped soul in whose company she faces quietly stunning revelations about life, the universe and everything. It’s at this point that the film takes a fantastical leap that viewers will find either breathtaking or ridiculous – probably a bit of both.
In the US, distributors Neon made much of programming Memoria to play “in front of only one solitary audience at any given time”, like a travelling roadshow exhibition (“Let’s embrace the darkness and dream, one at a time,” said Weerasethakul). That strategy isn’t being repeated here, but it tells us something about the installation-like nature of the movie, a trancey quality epitomised by a scene in which Jessica wanders through a gallery as the lights go out, eerily mirroring the experience of those mesmerised cinema-goers for whom it was so clearly intended.