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Memoria Goes on Tour

Tilda Swinton and Elkin Díaz in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (2021)

On Tuesday, Neon announced a release strategy for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria that flies in the face of most distributors’ game plans at a moment when the windows between theatrical and home releases are shattering. Following the film’s premiere this summer in Cannes, where it shared the jury prize with Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee, and once its current run through the festival circuit is complete, Memoria will open at the IFC Center in New York on December 26—and only at the IFC Center.

From now until the end of time, insists Neon, Memoria will screen “in front of only one solitary audience at any given time,” moving “from city to city, theater to theater, week by week.” There will never be a release on Blu-ray or DVD, and the film will never stream on any service. “The only means of experiencing Memoria will be in theaters . . . forever.”

On the one hand, there is a kind of carny aspect to this strategy, one that brings to mind the renegade independent filmmakers of the midtwentieth century who would load their reels in a trunk, drive into some town, put up flyers, sell tickets, project their movie, gather their reels again, and drive on to the next town. On the other hand, as Ryan Lattanzio points out at IndieWire, Neon’s idea here is “to frame Memoria as a kind of never-ending, moving-image art exhibit.”

In that sense, as Scott Tobias argues at the Reveal, Neon’s strategy fits the Thai filmmaker “like a tailored suit.” Apichatpong studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and he’s been staging solo exhibitions of his work for well over a decade. There’s one on right now in France. Periphery of the Night, a selection of around twenty artworks, will be on view at the Institut d’art contemporain, Villeurbanne/Rhône-Alpes through November 28. “Swept up in the bewitching rhythm of the videos, with their plays of light and dark and the penetrating soundscape that accompanies them,” writes the IAC, “visitors are invited to circulate from one to the other in a state of altered consciousness, on the borders of wakefulness and sleep.”

The experience, then, promises to be very much like watching one of Apichatpong’s films in a darkened theater. “Those who are furious to hear about Neon’s plans for Memoria,” writes Tobias, “making the tiresome argument that everyone should have access to everything all the time—a notion that is extremely new to cinema yet somehow calcified in the minds of many—should take some comfort from the likelihood that they’re not repeatable.”

Not only should Memoria be seen in a theater, but perhaps more than most films, it should also be heard in a theater. “Sound has always played an essential part in Apichatpong’s poetics,” writes Manu Yáñez Murillo for Film Comment, “and Memoria highlights its aesthetic, physical, narrative, and conceptual dimensions.” Tilda Swinton plays Jessica Holland—the name is intended to remind us of the mysteriously ailing woman in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943)—a British botanist in Colombia visiting her bedridden sister (Agnes Brekke) in Bogotá.

At night, Jessica is awakened by a deep, soul-shaking thud that echoes the bout of exploding head syndrome that Apichatpong suffered through a few years ago. Working with a sound engineer, Hernán Bedoya (Juan Pablo Urrego), and his library of movie sound effects, Jessica tries to replicate the literal jump scares that no one else can hear. She says it’s like “a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater,” like “a rumble from the core of the earth.”

Jessica’s search leads her to the wilderness, where she meets another, older Hernán Bedoya (Elkin Díaz), this one claiming to have lived a thousand years. He says he remembers everything he has ever seen and heard. “We worked for months on that scene,” Apichatpong tells Jordan Cronk in Cinema Scope. “Often we thought we had gotten it, but when we watched the film from the beginning, it didn’t work. I wanted it to be silent at one point. Then I wrote a new script just for that one scene during post-production.” For Ryan Swen at In Review Online, “this last hour is one of the most extraordinary, focused, and sustained sequences of the past decade, a slow unfurling of personal and national pasts that intermingle and mutate, conveyed via the most entrancing of means.”

Memoria “mines the subterranean,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook, and “the accumulation of memories, their suppression and excavation, functions as a metaphor for people’s burial of histories, a theme nowhere more topical and tragic than in Colombia, a country ravaged by an internal conflict between paramilitaries, guerrillas, and armed forces that’s spanned the last seventy years.”

Throughout much of the shoot, Giovanni Marchini Camia, one of the cofounders of Fireflies Press, was on the set in Colombia. In his conversation with Nicolas Rapold, he talks about Swinton’s engagement with the project. Years before, she was to have had a role in Cemetery of Splendour (2015), but both she and Apichatpong agreed that her presence would have been too distracting. On Memoria, the director and actor cocreated Jessica from the ground up, and Swinton’s involvement carried on through the latter stages of the realization of the film. She would look through the camera lens, says Marchini Camia, and take measure of the mise-en-scène before placing herself within it. Ryan Swen finds that Swinton’s “signature, slightly alien presence, which has admittedly run the risk of parody in recent years, is wondrously molded by Apichatpong.”

Fireflies has released a book, Memoria, that Blake Williams, writing for Filmmaker, finds has “helped lead me deeper in the film’s universe. It’s a scrapbook of sorts (and tries to look like one, too), including cutouts from an early 2018 detailed synopsis (when Jessica was instead named Erika, and the ending was more overtly spiritual), as well as tons of set photos, a later draft of the script in proper formatting and scans of archival documents presumably consulted for research. As the book confirms, the film is a well that sustains deeper immersion, its mysteries still intact.”

To dip into that well, we’ll have to see it first, and most of us will be more than happy to wait our turn. Like Scott Tobias, the New York TimesA. O. Scott is slightly amused and maybe a little irritated that Neon’s distribution plans have sparked “a predictable kerfuffle on Film Twitter, whose denizens like nothing better than a heated argument about a movie very few people have seen.” How, Scott wonders, has moviegoing, “a quintessentially democratic cultural activity,” become “reclassified as a snobbish, specialized fetish? The answer, I think, is a form of pseudo-populist techno-triumphalism that takes what seems to be the easiest mode of consumption as, by definition, the most progressive.” But Scott finds “something beautiful, even utopian in the idea that another way of looking is possible, that habits can be broken. That we might have to go find movies out in the world, where they are looking for us.”

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