Though it’s riding a wave of critical exultation, “Syndromes and a Century” will surely still baffle and unsettle much of its audience—a necessity in our film culture. The gently swaying provocations of Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s latest experiment in narrative palpate the edges of what today’s market-tested “art-house” audiences are willing to handle. So, then how does a good, upstanding critic, wary from years of singing the praises of films that he convinced only his lover, grandma, and some random dude in Wyoming to go see, persuade his readers to get out of the grindhouse and into the rhythms of Apichatpong?
Well, one could dote upon the calming pacing and visuals, but then the film’s not reducible to its mood and atmosphere—“Syndromes and a Century” is truly sublime, a bridging of the gap between avant-garde and narrative forms made by the sure, steady hand of an artist. “Syndromes” is funny. “Syndromes” is pure–to the extent that I don’t believe that there’s a wasted moment, extraneous visual, or unharmonious cut, and that everything you see comes from the genuine expression of a painter and philosopher who just happens to use film as his medium.
The origins of the film’s production are as hazy as the wisp of narrative that was allegedly formed around them. Created as a part of the New Crowned Hope festival, which the city of Vienna funded as part of its celebration marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart‘s birth, and allegedly inspired by the meeting of the director’s parents, “Syndromes and a Century” is several layers removed from its twinned inspirations: the film is relatable to Wolfgang Amadeus only insomuch as it’s split into movements and it plays with contrapuntal voices, calling to each other rhythmically across narrative divides (much like the director’s earlier “Tropical Malady” and “Blissfully Yours,” which bisected their stories to similarly transgressive, eloquent effect). Meanwhile, if we’re truly seeing some version of the meeting between Apichatpong’s mother and father, then the director is much more interested in the settings surrounding them and the forces controlling them–architecture, nature, medicine.
In the film’s first half, we meet various workers at a placid, rural hospital, including the no-nonsense Dr Tei (Nantarate Sawaddikul), as she interviews prospective young male doctors, one of whom grows smitten by her, and other patients and physicians, including a dentist and a monk who form an oddly goofy relationship. Story-wise (if you’re looking for that sort of thing), much of the same action occurs in the second half, in another time and place: an urban center with a more contemporary feel. Such repetition (of dialogue, character) magnifies the subtleties of behavior, prizing human connection above all other incidentals—it’s a thoroughly delicate and compassionate modernism, dancing around the edges of a love story at once cerebral and emotional. Even Kubrickian, as its astonishing climactic image summons up that most imposing freestanding shape in cinema history: “2001“‘s monolith. “Syndromes” is no less enigmatic than that epochal masterwork, even as it comes from a philosopher more casually attuned to life’s breezy beauties and absurdities.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]