Review by Ciaran Drohan
In the mid-1970s, a friend visited Brian Eno while he was recovering in hospital after a car crash. Before leaving, she put on a record of classical harp music, however the volume was quite low and the music blended into the sound of rain, hospital machinery and distant chatter. This moment was when ambient music was first divined in the mind of Brian Eno. A music that, according to him, ‘didn’t impose itself on your space but created a landscape that you could belong to.’ In many ways Memoria is ambient cinema. It is the first English language film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and it creates a world only completed by the audience’s entrance into it – especially when seen in cinemas.
The film stars Tilda Swinton who plays Jessica, a Scottish botanist in Colombia. In the opening scene of the film, she is abruptly awoken by a loud noise ‘like a big concrete ball that falls into a metal well which is surrounded by seawater’. She assumes that it is construction work, however it quickly becomes clear that she is experiencing these sounds alone. A number of inexplicable events occur: people she meets disappear and a doctor she believes to be dead is confirmed to be alive.
The narrative unfurls slowly while the camera holds on shots for up to five, ten or twenty minutes. We see Jessica wake up and get out of bed in real time, accompanied by extensive still shots of nature and an uninterrupted jazz number. These lengthy, sedentary scenes allow the eye to wander from the main subject around the whole frame, really taking in the background details and becoming accustomed to the setting. It is almost akin to looking at a painting in an art gallery. In fact, this film was released in US cinemas so that no two screenings would happen concurrently, making the film into a sort of travelling exhibition.
To complement the extended shots, the sound design also succeeds in creating an enveloping space to enter. In a scene where Jessica and her husband chat at a table in a bustling square, the background sounds of chatter and activity are expertly mixed by sound designer Akritcharlerm Kalayanamitr creating a scene that is absolutely immersive and a refreshing antidote to the perspex barrier of CG that diminishes the tangibility of a film. In a rural scene later in the film, the sounds of distant howler monkeys, the gentle gushing of a stream and wind rushing through foliage elevates the immersion to a new height rewarding the audience’s patience with an inviting sensory experience.
Brian Eno described the ambient music he made saying that it is more like a place you go rather than a journey you are taken on, when comparing it to more traditional forms. While there is a loose plot that stitches the scenes together and leads to a stunning, fantastical conclusion, for me this film primarily succeeds in creating a sense of place for the audience to explore and become involved with.