Cannes Film Festival 2021 Critics’ Notebook 5: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Information, context and mystery have worried me a bit since I saw the two new films that Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul brought to Cannes this year.: his feature film, with Tilda Swinton, in Colombia Memory, and the “nocturnal colonies”, of 13 minutes, the segment which concludes The year of the eternal storm omnibus project, which brings together seven short films on creativity in the COVID-19 era from global arthouse heavyweights such as Jafar Panahi, Dominga Sotomayor and David Lowery. This is in part because Weerasethakul’s new films, like the rest of his cinema, better negotiate the divide between our sensory and cognitive functions than any other active filmmaker. They are machines generating curiosity whose puzzles flourish from strange images and loose dialectical juxtapositions: rural and urban, contemporary and ancient, present and absent.
In this regard, Memory is another success. It is a film of resounding silence, in which Swinton plays the role of Jessica (named after the sleepwalker Jessica Holland in the film by Jacques Tourneur I walked with a zombie ), a botanist who specializes in orchids and who, while visiting her sister in Bogotá, begins to experience symptoms of exploding head syndrome– a real disorder in which people hear illusory loud noises while sleeping, which Weerasethakul claims to have suffered a few years ago. The thunderous sound that torments Jessica punctuates Memorythe sound design of, disrupting silences and peaceful pauses at unexpected times, and becomes the central conflict of the film. (It is quite appropriate to call these frightening jumps, especially the early cases [out of dozens] in which the sound occurs.) Not knowing what she hears or why she hears it, Jessica visits a recording artist named Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), a member of a jazz band called The Depth of Delusions Ensemble, which she asks to try to generate the sound with her mixing software. A scene of the two of them together in her studio editing sounds from archival movies, filtering out the highs and lows until they have exactly the earthy rumble she remembers being one of the highlights of the film, evoking the tensions between artifice, sensuality and memory that mark Weerasethakul’s best work.
While questions about the cause, meaning or origin of sound lead us to Memory‘s climax, other mysteries enter the frame that suggest a world teeming with surreality. Inexplicably activated car alarms and spontaneously exploding bus tires join with Jessica’s internal arrows to disrupt the flow of sound, reminding her (and the viewer) how rare it is to enjoy a real silence in a city. There are callbacks to Weerasethakul’s previous films / past lives: a Christian doctor pontificating on the aesthetic principles and theology of Salvador Dalí, lingering shots of monuments and statues in the city, and questions about whether a man speaks the “language of the apes”. These elements evoking the filmmaker’s other work are well suited to a film about our relational realities and our chronologies which are not ours, either because they are elsewhere, or because they existed in the past. It’s a meta-cinematic gesture that extends to empathy and storytelling; when one character accesses another’s thoughts, she tears herself apart, which begs the question of why she would cry over another person’s memories. By extension, sensory access to the whole story—Its beings in fossils, his image in monuments and icons, his temporality and therefore his presence in the cinema — where is the ceiling of what we can feel? It’s a question and a movie that reaches for the stars, and it almost gets there.
My reaction to Memory was relatively muted (unintentional pun) compared to most of Weerasethakul’s previous features, although it opened up for me since I stepped out of my projection into a reverie– simultaneously fighting my disappointment while recognizing that what I had just suffered had legitimately altered me. I have since leafed through the additional hardcover book published in conjunction with the film’s premiere by Fireflies Press, which, despite my general aversion to ingesting extratextual information related to deliberately cryptic work, helped me delve deeper into the world of the film. It’s kind of a scrapbook (and tries to sound like it too), including cutouts from a detailed synopsis from early 2018 (when Jessica was called Erika instead, and the ending was more overtly spiritual), as well as tons of set photos, a later version of the script in proper formatting, and scans of archival documents presumably viewed for research. As the book confirms, the film is a well that sustains a deeper immersion, its mysteries still intact.
“Night colonies”, Weerasethakul’s contribution to The year of the eternal storm—The only segment I haven’t seen yet, I should say — is nowhere near as ambitious as Memory, but in its elegance achieves something so beautiful and remarkable. Shot in a tiny cottage in the city of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, the segment shows a room with an unmade bed, white fluorescent lights artfully arranged on tripods, and a community of insects., including, but not limited to, praying mantises, mosquitoes, beetles, aphids, moths, ants, dragonflies and many more. Some of them eat each other, others dance, ignoring the much smaller or larger species that occupy sheets, pillows, and bulbs. Blurry audio clips of the democracy protests in Bangkok from summer 2020 chirp in the sea of buzzing mini-bugs, as if they are heading towards the room via their antennas. In the context of a “pandemic film”, it’s confusing, disturbing and a bit funny: social distancing rejected, a society without humans, a world in chaos, a space of rest invaded by beings completely oblivious to it. past year or any time other than the present.