Memoria is the first film Apichatpong Weerasethakul shot outside his native Thailand, and the first in English. That should be enough to make it a debut unto itself, but the deeper I dove into his beguiling, mesmerizing South American adventure, truly one of the finest unveiled on the Croisette this year, the more all those “firsts” began to feel a little misleading. Sure, in casting Tilda Swinton as his lead, Apichatpong has recruited a major actress in the English-speaking world, but her Jessica, a British botanist traveling through Colombia, spends far more time speaking in Spanish than she does in her mother tongue. As for the luxurious Andean locale, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the jungles Memoria ushers you into for stretches of the rainforests that hosted Apichatpong’s Thai works. It’s as if the filmmaker and the land he captures shared an ineffable, almost symbiotic connection, the kind that makes Memoria suffused with the same otherworldly aura that made his earlier films swim between the real and the supernatural. After all, where on earth could Apichatpong set his first film abroad if not in the land that birthed magical realism?
Fittingly, Memoria juts out of a dream. It starts with Jessica awoken by a strange, ominous noise. It’s a loud thud (or, to go by her own description, “like a big ball of concrete that falls on a metal surface surrounded by sea water”). No one else can hear it, not even her own sister, who’s settled in Bogotá with her husband and child. The thud follows Jessica everywhere she goes, a beating organ in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. But that’s not the only disturbing sign. Dotting her pilgrimage around Bogotá there are car alarms blaring in unison; a bus that breaks down with a gunshot bang; a dog that may have been yanked from her sister’s dreams; a young sound mixer who might be a figment of her imagination. And then there’s Hernán (Elkin Díaz), a man Jessica happens into during a visit to a village nestled in Colombia’s jungle; he claims to have lived in that remote stretch of land for thousands of years, and remember everything he ever saw or heard. Might he know the mystery behind Jessica’s thud, too?
Memoria devotes its last act to their encounter, though speaking of “acts” can feel a little preposterous here. Apichatpong’s script unfolds as a series of vignettes, ostensibly anchored to Jessica’s journey, but each able to stand as its own micro-film. As it was in the director’s previous works, the dramaturgy is broken down to its most basic elements; whenever Jessica isn’t roaming streets and forests on her own, looking and feeling, the action, if you can call is such, is reduced to long dialogue scenes, where the silence characters observe in each other’s company far outstretches the time they spend actually talking. There is an elemental grace about the meditative rhythms. Apichatpong’s long, static takes function as rooms, spaces that you can settle and wander into at your own pace. The camera observes a religious distance from characters, never framing them in close-ups but pitting them against their surroundings—forests, rivers, recording studios, courtyards. And the exchanges take on a kind of mystical quality, leaving you uncertain whether the folks Jessica talks to are real, ghosts, or divine beings in human clothes. It’s a disquieting meditation. Whether it works for a wide audience is a different question, but Apichatpong’s surely is a cogent, and, for me, soothing approach not just to storytelling but to a cleansing of the spirit. An evocation and healing of the soul.
Watching Jessica and Hernán interact, I was reminded of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes the Memorious," in which an Argentinian cowboy is gifted an otherworldly memory that grants him unfettered access to the entire history of the world. I don’t know if Apichatpong ever read it, or if he drew from it for inspiration, but the similarities between Funes and his Hernán are striking: both men’s reactions to the preternatural talent amount to a form of paralysis, a stasis (per Hernán, “new experiences are harmful, they unleash a violent flurry in my memory”). As it was for Cemetery of Splendour, the film mines the subterranean; 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.
Save for a final excursion into sci-fi, Memoria avoids much of the fantastical flourishes Apichatpong has exhibited in previous films, but still wrings out their disquieting is-it-all-real charms. That’s no doubt credit to his direction, his ability to craft frames that throb with a near occult beauty. But I wonder whether the film would stand out with the same force were it not for the actress at its center. As Jessica, Swinton traverses Colombia as a foreigner in a foreign land, and the film thrives on the quiet alienation she embodies. Every silence, every glance, every gesture is perfectly placed, each unfurling the other like the network of a flower. It’s only been a couple of days since Memoria’s premiere, but amid the many titles I saw and forgot shortly after leaving the theatre, it’s the only one that’s left me with a soul-expanding feeling, the kind of film that embeds you so successfully in its world that stepping out of it can leave you as disoriented as replenished.
Leaving the soothing rhythms of Memoria to dive into Kira Kovalenko’s confrontative Unclenching the Fists came as a shock. Set in a former mining town in North Ossetia, Russia, her second feature follows Ada (Milana Aguzarova), a young woman struggling to break free from a family she both rejects and love. That’s comprised of her over-protective, over-possessive father Zaur (Alik Karaev), her younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov), and the eldest, Akim (Soslan Khugaev), the only one who’s left home to find work in the nearest city. It’s Akim whom Ada nervously awaits for at a bus stop as the film kicks off, for his return doubles as a ticket out of jail. So determined is Zaur to keep his daughter close that the father has confiscated her passport in hopes she won’t abandon him, even as the girl desperately needs an operation to survive a condition Kovalenko doesn’t really spell out. We’re told she tried to get to a hospital on her own before; he caught up with her before she could, and now Ada and Dakko must beg their father to unlock the house door if they want to go outside. Will Akim manage to set his sister free?
Kovalenko has said the film was inspired by a line in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust about how, while some can endure slavery, nobody can stand freedom. That’s the root of the dilemma Ada wrestles with: how to abandon a father who keeps her on a short leash without succumbing to the terrifying unknown that awaits her as soon as she’ll leave the village. The title, by Kovalenko’s own admission, is a reference to Marco Bellocchio’s 1965 Fists in the Pocket—another portrait of a family living in close quarters, told entirely from the point of view of one of its younger members. But her film works opposite to Bellocchio’s. While Fists in the Pocket brimmed with an omnipresent, simmering tension, a tightening of body and spirit, Unclenching stays true to its name, and the script—penned by Kovalenko, Anton Yarush, and Lyubov Mulmenko—gestures toward a peculiar liberation.
Much like Memoria, the film plumbs the sedimentation of memories. Time and again, Ada tucks her neck inside a purple wind jacket, turtle-like, in an act of self-defense. Clothes serve as armors; the one time she undresses, we’re shown a scar running all along her belly. “I got blown up as a kid, during a school hostage crisis,” she tells a lad she’s about to have sex with. Kovalenko doesn’t specify which tragedy she’s referring to, but my mind went back to the 2004 Beslan massacre, in which Chechen terrorists occupied a school, leaving over 300 dead, half of them children. War is never shown, but remains a specter haunting each and every frame. For the psychically damaged wanderers populating Unclenching, the only way to overcome its traumas is to forget about them altogether, a repression pushed down into the dark recesses of the mind, but never deep enough to be thoroughly exorcised. Time itself seems to have stopped (save for a few smartphones popping up here and there, the film features no clear temporal markers), locking everyone in a chronic impasse.
So what explains the strange uplifting feeling the film ends on? For all the dread Unclenching is awash with, for all the distressing moments of physical and psychological violence, Ada’s story unspools as a coming of age, and part of the charm here is to engage with protean characters teasing out their adult identities. Working with cinematographer Pavel Fomintsev, Kovalenko’s long takes accord her protagonists a compassionate respect that compels us to share their sorrows; as they did in Memoria, they serve as tools for empathy. The film ends, as it must, with Ada making a choice, perhaps the first she’s ever made. It’s a character-defining moment that brings out all her ambivalences and contradictions, a riveting scene in a film that’s graced with plenty of them.
Unclenching the Fists left Cannes with the top prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. As I type these words, the Croisette is gearing up for the awards ceremony, with the Palm d’Or announced later this evening. One of the last competition titles to be unveiled was Sean Baker’s follow-up to The Florida Project, which premiered here in the 2017 Directors' Fortnight sidebar. Red Rocket adds another chapter to the Baker's sprawling working class Americana, this time chronicling a month in the life of a washed-up pornstar who leaves L.A. to return to his estranged wife and mother-in-law in Texas City. Our unlikely hero is Mikey; as played by Simon Rex, he fumbles into the film as a con man determined to fight his way back into the spotlight. His golden years in the adult industry are over; all that remains are anecdotes and accolades (2,000 movies, six awards, 20 million views on Pornhub, and three consecutive Best Oral prizes). Chances of landing a job with that kind of resume are slim, never mind how proudly Mikey encourages potential employers to google him and see for themselves. But an unexpected opportunity materializes in the shape of Raylee, a.k.a. “Sweetheart” (Suzanna Son), a seventeen-year-old girl working at the local donut joint, whom Mikey falls smitten with, convinced that, should he manage to turn her into an adult performer too, she’ll be her ticket back to fame.
Baker is unmistakably aware of the distressing overtones of the liaison that ensues—for all the clumsy histrionics and flirting, Mikey is still a man on his forties preying on a minor. But Strawberry doesn’t succumb to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and Red Rocket—penned by Baker alongside his longtime co-scribe Chris Bergoch—grants her enough perspicacity to let her see through his bullshit (it only takes her a few minutes to ask: “what’s a famous L.A. actor doing hitting on seventeen-year-old girls?”). The film also never obfuscates the giant size of Mikey’s narcissism, his delusions, and his dirtbag tricks. Simply put, the man’s just the worst, yet Red Rocket flaunts his assholery just as happily as it relishes showing his constant falls from heaven.
But if the end result feels so viciously captivating, that’s by and large credit to Rex’s outstanding performance. His Mikey shifts from a pathetic loser to a far more complex figure, in turns likable and sinister, but never less than compelling. That we root for him is testament to the way Baker always seems to afford compassion even to the most morally abject among his drifters; he’s charming, despite all the mess he leaves in his wake. And it’s a pleasure to watch Baker immerse us in a place that doesn’t feel like one at all. Mikey’s back in town, but all we see are gas stations, diners, and a forest of oil refineries and industrial plants, white smoke billowing incessantly in the background, day or night. Even the donut joint where much of Red Rocket’s action unfolds is one of such non-places: it suggests communion, but reflects isolation.
Part of the magic of Baker’s cinema, for me, is to be introduced to characters who always seem to know how to speak for themselves, people unmistakably aware of their precarious social and financial standings, but never willing to give in to desperation and self-pity. I can’t pretend Red Rocket moved me in the same way as his other films did. It doesn’t carry the same exuberant, insouciant swagger of Tangerine; nor does it feel as quietly lacerating as The Florida Project. But it is still a slyly humorous ride, a piercing close-up portrait of a rascal who doesn’t deserve one, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off.