Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB
Colombia/Thailand/France/Germany/Mexico/Qatar/United Kingdom/China/Switzerland, 2021. 185 Films, Anna Sanders Films, Beijing Contemporary Art foundation, Bord Cadre Films, Burning Blue, Centre National du Cinema et de L’Image Animee, Doha Film Institute, Eficine, Hubert Bals Fund, Illuminations Films, Kick the Machine, L’Aide aux Cinemas du Monde, Labodigital, Louverture Films, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres et du Developpement International, Piano, Proimágenes Colombia, Purin Foundation, Rediance, Sovereign Films, The Match Factory, Xstream Pictures, ZDF/Arte. Screenplay by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Produced by Diana Bustamente, Julio Chavezmontes, Charles de Meaux, Simon Field, Keith Griffiths, Michael Weber, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Music by César López. Production Design by Angelica Perea. Costume Design by Catherine Rodriguez. Film Editing by Lee Chatametikool.
After filmmaker and film conjurer extraordinaire Apichatpong Weerasethakul developed Exploding Head Syndrome some years ago, he decided to make it the jumping off point from which he created a collaboration with Tilda Swinton after the two of them expressed a desire to work together. The syndrome is a sleep disorder that causes crashing noises to occur in your head just as you’re trying to fall asleep, or wakes you up in the middle night, and, despite its being an unpleasant and sometimes quite distressing condition, the film he has concocted from its inspiration is a miraculous work of wonder.
Swinton is a Scottish ex-patriate working in the flower business in Medellín who is awakened at the crack of dawn by the sound of a bomb going off. Hearing it again later that day, she begins to wonder what it is and why it is connected to her, unheard by anyone else, distracting her while having dinner with her sister who has just been released from the hospital after a mysterious respiratory illness. She consults a sound engineer to help recreate the noise in his studio, and later it is suggested, in this world where the line between reality and enchantment is always gauzy and ephemeral, that this experience may not have been real.
A construction project creating a tunnel has unearthed ancient skeletons and Swinton meets the researcher (played by French actress Jeanne Balibar) who is studying them, then later she visits a doctor to see about her condition and is told to skip the Xanax and take it to the Lord in prayer.
These sequences, all of them meditative in their pace and soul-stirring in their pictorial beauty, connect to themes of spirituality (Swinton’s sister believes a dog’s curse has caused her illness), Colombia’s losing touch with its supernatural beliefs and the societal modernization that has alienated its indigenous population, before we then have a climax in which our heroine meets a stranger with whom she finds the answers she’s been looking for (and ties up a lot of the things pertaining to earlier scenes).
The combination of this actor and director seems inevitable, Swinton has long proven her ability to maintain a lengthy intensity on camera that is perfectly suited to Weerasethakul’s long takes, tinged with an unearthly magic in their frames. Watching her explore and discover a place as foreign to her as it is to her director is a mesmerizing trip through the imagination, in which Weerasethakul’s skill with capturing images can make something as mundane as a factory seem like an adventure on a different planet.
Most impressive, though, is that sound is as much an achievement as the pictorial wonders are, sound is the beginning of this story and it is through a fascinating, enveloping soundtrack that much of the emotional experience happens, from the jarring collection of car alarms that perk up your nerves at the beginning, through to the prickling intensity of the sound studio and the quiet, lush rhythm of the trees waving outside the village house windows at the end.
Weerasethakul hasn’t been this entrancing since Tropical Malady, here riding a line between inventive vision and smart political realism that never falters for a second.
Cannes Film Festival: Jury Prize
Toronto International Film Festival: 2021