Memoria Bewilders and The Worst Person in the World Charms on the First Full Day of the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival

When going to a film festival one always has to be concerned about the time. When screenings start, if there’s enough minutes on the clock to grab food, or if a movie beginning late won’t run so long that you might drift off. All of these factors constrict what a view can accomplish in one day. So a plan has to be made, and decisions approached. Thus the eternal debate of the fest rears its ugly head. Go to movies from named individuals, or seek out totally unknown projects to be surprised? Emotionally I wish I could say that I do the latter, but the clocks ticking all the time and I am easily swayed by the names. Those sweet names are calling to those bigger screenings.

Luckily with Memoria, the latest from Thai slow cinema master Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who I will refer to as Joe from now on, as he jokingly does), it might be a smart move to catch it as soon as one can. Distributor Neon has decided to take a unique approach for bringing Joe’s latest tone piece to theaters. A theoretically never ending tour where the movie will play one screen at a time in a slow rolling art house event. Said model might have ruffled a few feathers for the film twitter crowd, and it is unfortunate that a die hard cineaste might never actually be able to see Memoria in theaters because of it, but after watching the film it makes sense.


Joe has never made what one would call thrilling pictures as his style tilts about as far to the Art Installation of narrative cinema that one could get. His movies slide at a deliberate pace and work in elliptical ways, the fantastic weaving in and out through dreamy images and lush soundscapes. It would be trite to use words like deliberate, or languid, or beguiling, but they are all apt descriptors of Joe’s work, and Memoria leans into said adjectives as hard as possible. Thus Memoria is a deliberate obfuscation, one even the presence of a major star like Tilda Swinton can’t hide, and making this an art house event is reasonable considering this is a film that you have to meet more than halfway.


So what’s it even about? Memoria follows a botanist played by Swinton who is visiting her ill sister in Bogota. One night she is awoken by a loud sound, an emphasized thump that stirs her on to discover where such a noise comes from. As she contracts help from a musician and anthropologist the world around seems to get even hazier and more obscure as things abstract further and further outwards. Saying more would undoubtably spoil some of the surprising contours the narrative takes, sufficed to say that there’s much more than one would initially expect from the pitched log line.

It’s hard for me to say with certainty what Memoria is about beyond a beat by beat summary of the narrative, yet there’s an intuitive sense of place that Joe slowly and surely works to as the film progresses. Joe has always been a filmmaker deeply concerned with both texture and sounds, and here has constructed a vast canvas in which these elements are the focus. Memoria is a movie about experience, and how difficult it is for an individual to properly communicate those things to someone else. How do you describe a sound that only you have heard? Or perhaps a memory that belongs to another? These are moments of mundane profundity, the wiling ache to get across something that we ourselves may lack the ability to communicate, and that at the end there may be someway to transcend said limitations.

It’s heady stuff, presented in a manner that feels close to falling asleep. Indeed the movie follows the rhythm of the hypnagogic. The very moment between one is awake and dreaming that seems to not exist in our minds at all, the blankness we fill in later by knowing when we were conscious and when we weren’t. That’s all awfully high minded, but it’s the attitude needed to actually get something out of Memoria, and not end up like my fellow audience members for who the comparison to drying paint was frequently made.

On the livelier side of things is the newest feature from Norwegian director Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World. After dipping into American moviemaking with Louder Than Bombs and a genre detour with Thelma, Trier returns to the roots of what made him an international name by exploring the lives of the people of Oslo. Closing out a “trilogy” of films formed previously by Reprise and Oslo, 31, August, Worst Person is a bit of a shift for the director. Trier is not the cheeriest fellow, or at least his movies aren’t, frequently treading the waters of dark thematic material with astute seriousness. They are carefully considered dramas through and through, which makes the full comedic force of Worst Person a bit of a surprise.

The film follows the flaky on the verge of 30 Julie (Reinate Reinsve who nabbed the best actress award at Cannes) as she flits about her life unsure of what to do. She’s already swapped life goals, from medical student, to psychology student, to photographer, to bookstore clerk, and her relationship with comic artist Aksel (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie) is fraught by the fact that he is fifteen years older than her. Things get even trickier when Julie happens across the more age appropriate Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) and the possibilities with him open up a new world.

From a birds eye view this seems like yet another, “youngish people mess around and ruin there life” kind of picture that has been oh so popular over the past ten years or so. The willing crumble in the modern world that helped define projects like Girls or Frances Ha. However, Trier is not just a rote trend follower, and while the story at play here is familiar, the thing is cranked to the next level of enjoyment through a shear sense of verve and pep. This is a movie that takes dramatic stylistic risks, dipping into moments of pure expressionism and absurdity, allowing the emotional world of characters to be represented in forms greater than just dialog. It’s a technique that honestly could be used in more movies like this, allowing the filmmaking to shine even if the story is down to earth.

The stylistic gambits (which include a droll voice over, jokey montages, and sequences of physics breaking) help Treir maintain a tightrope of a tone. This is a laugh out loud comedy, with many very broad punchlines, but it’s also a film that diligently wants to ground the tale of love and loss and love in realistic stakes and drama as well. Worst Person makes the mundane victories and tragedies in life feel very much a big part of an average person’s life. In a way the film reminds one of the successful features of James L. Brooks. There’s more than a little of Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment here. Trier ably handles both the laughs and tears, even if perhaps the final twenty minutes smother the former in favor of the latter.

Never the less, Worst Person represents a best case scenario for its type of movie. Charming, lively, and winning without falling into the many traps of traditional international cinema. Approachable, fun, and genuinely funny.