I’ve always been sensitive to sound. As a kid, I hated fireworks — I thought they were too loud, and I would cover my ears fully, afraid of when the next one would go off. I couldn’t stand horror movies solely because the sounds that come with jump scares would literally make me jump. But sound was not just terrifying; it was also engrossing. As a teenager, I discovered jazz music, and my parents couldn’t keep me away from my sister’s keyboard. I spent hours improvising various lines and riffs over jazz standards such as “One O’Clock Jump” and “Chameleon”; it just felt natural.
Movies that give significant attention to music and sound have always interested me. And not just blockbuster behemoths like “Inception” and “Top Gun: Maverick” that beg to destroy a surround sound setup, but movies based around a gimmick or special quirk in their sound design like “A Quiet Place,” which used silence as a plot device. “Memoria,” directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”), takes the attention to sound even further. The film flows at a glacial pace with minimal action and constructs the entirety of its plot, emotion and personality around a recurring low-register, booming sound.
The person who hears that sound is Jessica (Tilda Swinton, “The French Dispatch”), a Scottish woman living in Colombia. At first, she only hears it at night — she is troubled by the intensity of the noise and the fact that it wakes her up. As she searches for its origin, Jessica’s strolls, dinners and conversations are increasingly interrupted by the thunderous, jolting noise. She is equal parts fascinated and distressed, and Swinton deftly wears this all on her face without needing to say a word.
In fact, words are not a commodity used lightly in this film. Dialogue is careful and deliberate, and most lines (especially Swinton’s) carry some sort of emotional power or intention. The scarcity of chatter and small talk emphasize the importance of each spoken line — when there are conversations, they matter to the meaning of the work as a whole. Music is similarly rarely used. Aside from a few select scenes, music is either passive and ambient or absent altogether.
The lack of dense music and dialogue makes the enormous boom all the more compelling. As a viewer, I was simultaneously kept in a relaxed state by the slow, deliberate camerawork and quiet, minimal sonic atmosphere, and made extremely anxious by the unpredictable moments when that calm would be shattered by the boom. It was quite an ironic experience for me, a state of oxymoronic “intense zen.”
During the first two-thirds of the film, I did not enjoy this combination of relaxation and anxiety. I knew the boom was coming. I didn’t know when, but I knew it would be loud and frightening. I was freaked out by the possibility of the boom scaring me out of my seat at any point. But during the last third, as the significance of the sound began revealing itself, something changed. Talking specifics would be a spoiler, but conversations became more enriching and emotional, using all the previous context to create a powerful and compelling package.
I had been on my toes for so much of the runtime, just waiting to be scared by the boom, that I had not truly processed the web that Weerasethakul was weaving until the film was drawing to a close. The last few scenes were so emotional and intense that they increased my focus, but so quiet and peaceful that my anxiety about the sound dissipated, and the weight of two hours of compounded emotion hit me all at once. It was a cathartic experience, and I left the theater feeling fulfilled, rather than exhausted or relieved.
From an outside point of view, I can’t imagine Weerasethakul intended for this meditative, deliberate film to be an intense, nerve-wracking experience. For my friend sitting next to me, it tested her patience and attention span, rather than her anxiety. But my sensitivity to sound supplied an undercurrent of fear and focus that, in the end, created a positive emotional experience for me. I felt connected to Jessica, and as her relationship with the boom transformed from dread and curiosity to an eventual acceptance and satisfaction, I was right there with her, and my feelings towards sound mirrored hers exactly.
For me, this experience was personal, and in the end, addressed and enriched my complex relationship with sound. But even for those who don’t go in with such a complicated sonic connection, I’m certain they will walk out of the theater with a new perspective on it.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.