A 10th century book describes a game in which the aim is to become a dolphin. A Venetian scientist hears of a city located inside a coral reef and becomes obsessed with finding it. A baroness wakes at midnight every night to have sexual intercourse with spelling mistakes.
These are just some of the story suggestions provided by Twitter’s Magic Realism Bot and they neatly sum up the sense of infinite, inscrutable possibility that characterises the genre. Mystical elements drift into these realist tales as easily and unremarkably as a change in the weather, with little explanation offered for why a dead character now walks again or how a man was dreamed into existence. No distinction is made between the real and unreal, the mundane and the fantastical – it’s all just part of the story.
That’s certainly the case in both Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria and Małgorzata Szumowska’s Never Gonna Snow Again. A woman plagued by a mysterious sound. A man with hypnotic powers. In both cases, the story drifts further from our known reality as it progresses and in neither do we expect much in the way of concrete explanation.
One of the grandfathers of the genre, Gabriel García Márquez, explained that he wrote this way because, in Latin America, “surrealism runs through the streets”. Things occurred every day which defied explanation and the only way to live was simply to roll them into your understanding of the world and keep moving.
Together, these films provide not only a great crash course in the tropes and tendencies of magical realism, but how it can use these strange flights of fancy to tap into the deeper reality of our lives.
Never Gonna Snow Again takes place in an affluent Polish suburb composed entirely of identical white houses. We follow a Ukrainian immigrant named Zhenia (Alec Utgoff) as he wanders through its dreary cul-de-sacs like a visiting angel, offering his skills as a masseuse to the world-weary residents. With a few calming words and a snap of his fingers, he relaxes them into a near catatonic state, leaving him free to dance through their homes while they slumber.
Memoria takes us to Colombia, where a woman named Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is awoken in the dead of night by a thunderous thudding noise. Still in that hypnagogic state where we can’t be quite sure where our dreams end and waking life begins, she searches the house to try and find the source of the sound before realising that she is the only one who can hear it.
Immediately, Memoria homes in on how easily our sense of reality can be disturbed. Up until this moment, Jessica could go to dinner with her friends, secure in the sense that they were all perceiving the same outer world. They each reached out into it with their senses and received back the same information – the same sights, scents, tastes and sounds. But now Jessica has become unmoored from that shared reality. Her inner world is a place where deafening sounds explode through the air without warning. Her friends chatter happily over dinner while she anxiously braces herself for the next impact.
Zhenia also knows what it is like to watch the borders of reality suddenly shift. We learn that he was born in Chernobyl, seven years to the day before the disaster occurred. Perhaps this is where his powers come from, like the kids in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children who gain supernatural abilities after being born on the stroke of India’s independence. Like them, he is tied to a moment in history when the shape of the world was altered.
We get a glimpse of his tragedy-stricken childhood in a series of flashbacks, young Zhenia watching ash fall from the sky like pure, white snow. Szumowska doesn’t cordon these scenes off from the rest of the narrative, transitioning between the current story and Zhenia’s memories in a totally seamless fashion that’s reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s famous work, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The boundary between the story of the present moment and the one playing out inside the character’s minds is given equal footing, neither is made to seem more ‘real’ than the other.
In an attempt to synch her reality back up with everyone else’s, Jessica enlists the help of a sound engineer. Together, they try to recreate the noise which echoes through her mind, believing that this will allow her to anchor it back in the physical world and help her return to normal. In fact, things tend in the opposite direction. After spending several days growing close to the sound engineer Hernán (Elkin Díaz), she returns to his studio to find that he has vanished and that no-one there has ever heard of him. They ask if she has a photograph of him they could look at and she says no – she has no physical evidence of his existence at all, nothing external to check against the memories inside her head. Memories which are every bit as clear as the thudding sound she hears each day.
This question of how we bridge the gap between the world inside our heads and the one around us is at the very heart of both movies. As the knocking sound begins to wear Jessica down, she asks a local doctor to prescribe her some Xanax. In response, the doctor warns her of the deadening effect such drugs can have, cutting us off from a full experience of the world – both its pain and its beauty. This is something Weerasethakul is always working hard to avoid, using long static shots to give the viewer time to explore the little details of each frame and filling each scene with ambient noise – whether it’s the bustle of the city or the chirping of insects out in the woods – to ensure we always remain thoroughly immersed in its physical space.
The residents of Never Gonna Snow Again’s sleepy suburb exist in exactly the sort of numbed-out state which the doctor warns of. They use pills and booze to keep reality at bay, burying themselves in petty feuds and clumsy deceptions to ensure that they never have to engage with the world at large. The film’s dreary colour scheme paints their suburban realm as a bubble, an artificial space created to keep the messier and more meaningful parts of life out. If ennui was a place, it would look a lot like this.
Both films warn of the dangers of living life in such a checked-out fashion and both stories resolve themselves with a kind of call to attention.
Jessica’s journey concludes with a man who has retreated from life in another way – a hermit, also named Hernan, who appears to have an eidetic memory. Because everything he has ever seen, heard or done is so present to him all the time, he has been forced to seek out a quiet life with a set routine and a limited number of stimuli so that he won’t be overwhelmed. Unusually, his talents appear to go deeper than his own personal recollections – he can sense the personal history of every blade of grass, piece of stone and broken branch around him, as if tapping into the shared consciousness of the universe itself. He can’t imagine watching television because just gazing across his garden he can see the countless billions of stories that already make up each square foot of it.
After spending some time with him, Jessica finds herself able to perform a similar feat, experiencing Hernan’s memories as if they were her own. They sit together in his small home, holding hands and watching his childhood flash across their inner eyes. It’s a moment of perfect empathy as one person’s reality is communicated to another.
After spending so much time helping the town’s residents to retreat even further with his painkilling, body-soothing, hyno-massages, Zhenia decides to bring them back around – all at once and in spectacular fashion. He and a local widow perform a magic show for all the locals to enjoy, culminating in a vanishing act which none of them will ever forget. For a moment, he pushes back the boundaries of what they believe to be possible and draws them out from their stupor to engage with the world once again.
And it is vital that they do – the title Never Gonna Snow Again is a reference not just to the catastrophe from Zhenia’s past but to the environmental one which lies in all our futures unless radical action is taken. The sort of action which will require us to fully switch on to the world around us.
It can sound twee to talk about the magic of the everyday but that’s exactly what magical realist stories like Memoria and Never Gonna Snow Again draw out. The noise and colour that surrounds us all the time. The uniquely kaleidoscopic way they come together in each person’s life, never to be repeated exactly so again.
– Ross McIndoe