In the middle of the night, Jessica hears a noise — loud and slightly metallic, somewhere between a bang and thud. Later, talking with a young sound engineer named Hernán, she will describe it as large ball of concrete slamming into a metal wall surrounded by seawater, a remarkably vivid image that Hernán patiently attempts to synthesize.
Jessica, a British expatriate living in Colombia and played by Tilda Swinton, refers to what she heard as “my sound” — “mi sonido” in Spanish — and it seems to exist for her ears alone. Or rather for her and the audience watching “Memoria,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s enigmatic and enchanting new film.
The sound startles Jessica at dinner with her sister (Agnes Brekke) and brother-in-law (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and follows her from Bogotá to a small town in the mountains. The possibility that it’s an auditory hallucination is raised at one point, and there are other moments when the reliability of Jessica’s perception seems to be in question. Is Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) a figment of her imagination? If so, how could he have offered to buy her a refrigerator for the orchids she is raising on her farm in Medellín?
Even though Jessica visits a rural doctor, asking for Xanax to help her sleep — the doctor offers Jesus as a safer, more effective treatment — her psychological state isn’t really what “Memoria” is about. Saying exactly what it is about poses a quandary that multiple viewings are unlikely to dispel. Every scene unfolds with quiet, meticulous clarity, but Weerasethakul’s luminous precision only deepens the mystery.
Whenever you think you have a handle on where the story might be going, the ground shifts. Jessica is baffled by the sound and other, vaguely similar phenomena, but she doesn’t seem to be delusional, or even unduly troubled. She is curious, gently questioning people she meets — notably an anthropologist (Jeanne Balibar) and a second, older Hernán (Elkin Díaz) — about their work and its potential relevance to her situation. The film operates in a similar spirit, following an invisible map toward a surprising destination.
Along the way, Weerasethakul pauses to contemplate the remnants of ancient civilizations and the chaos of a modern life, as flickerings of supernaturalism, disrupted chronology, science fiction and the literary speculations of Jorge Luis Borges illuminate Jessica’s journey.
The director, most of whose previous films take place in Thailand, has a longstanding interest in the visual, social and metaphysical contrasts between city and countryside. His urban spaces, like the university where the first Hernán works and the hospital where Jessica’s sister is a patient, tend to be sleek and institutional, governed less by commerce or political authority than by science and technology. The Southeast Asian jungles in his “Tropical Malady” and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” — and the lush Andean mountainside where the second Hernán makes his home — are zones of magic, where the modern distinction between myth and fact does not apply.
This doesn’t quite make Weerasethakul a magical realist, though the South American setting of “Memoria” might make that description especially tempting. His imagination is philosophical and speculative, and in style he is more a poet than a fabulist, at home in the gaps between our various ways of making sense of the world.
His refusal to explain can be a challenge, and “Memoria” demands patience and attention. I found it an emotionally wrenching and intellectually fulfilling experience, but not one I can easily summarize or classify, partly because the feeling of radical uncertainty — Jessica’s feeling, but also mine — was a little too real. Her gradual unmooring from any stable sense of reality, and her perseverance in spite of that dislocation, strike me as utterly familiar, even as the causes of her alienation remains elusive. I am haunted by the plight of the second Hernán, a man blessed and cursed with a prodigious memory that connects him to a universe of suffering even as it condemns him to a state of isolation.
Swinton and Díaz are subtle, charismatic performers, and their scenes together, which make up most of the film’s last section, bring it to a new level of intensity. What passes between Jessica and Hernán, and the sequence of images that follows, represent a quietly mind-blowing moment of cinema, something as wild and argument-provoking now as the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey” was in 1968.
You have to see it to believe it, and to see it you’ll have to go to a movie theater. “Memoria” is opening in New York this week and then making its way across the country, one cinema at a time. It’s worth the wait, and the trip.
Rated PG. In Spanish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 16 minutes. In theaters.