Released 2019. Director: Eirini Konstantinidou
“WHAT IS MORE REAL THAN YOUR MEMORIES?” asks the movie’s tagline. Your memories are what you remember of your own life experience. They are real to you, no doubt. But can you also remember someone else’s experience? Can your brain process someone else’s memory and believe it’s as real as yours?
Mnemophrenia is a bold entry in the sci-fi genre that explores a condition resulting from a person’s inability to distinguish between real and artificial memories. The fake part is a result of prolonged immersion in virtual reality. Over time, real and virtual memories co-exist in the mind leading to a neurological condition called mnemophrenia, the name blending “mneme” and “schizophrenia”.
Mnemophrenia is also a challenging movie to sit through. A one-line synopsis will hardly scratch the surface of its complexity. There’s a lot going on across three timeframes. Characters explaining new tech, recalling the past, expressing deep concerns and regrets. There’s also infographics superimposed to provide additional exposition. A movie about memories appears like a memory test.
Let’s start with Robyin (Tallulah Sheffield). She has a chip implanted in her temple to record her experience of dying from a terminal illness and also to access the memories of her ancestors Jeanette (Freya Berry) and Nicholas (Robin King). Jeanette is having difficulty reconciling the discovery that her short romance with Douglas (Tim Seyfert) in her younger days took place in the virtual realm. Jeanette believes the vivid, idealised memory before the couple parted ways has coloured her later life decisions, including a failed marriage. Jeanette’s grandson Nicholas is developing a system that will enhance VR experience but encounters a change of heart on ethical grounds. Back to Robyin, whose obsession with reliving someone else’s experience begins to worry her husband Charlie (Robert Milton Wallace). “Which one of you said that?” he asks at one point.
Underpinning this group of characters is an identity crisis. Who are we if we cannot rely on our memories? If what we remember isn’t real, how does it affect me as a person I’ve become today? Is my sense of personal identity inextricably tied to my memory? Am I still the same me if my recollections are really someone else’s experience? If I’m diagnosed with a condition like mnemophrenia, am I liable for my actions resulting from a fake memory? If this sort of questions fascinate you, this is a treasure trove.
And if I could liken the movie to a sculpture, I’d say director Eirini Konstantinidou has chiselled her idea (co-written with Robin King) into something with an odd shape that compels you to view it from different angles. The way she builds her narrative is incredibly ambitious, the layers keep intersecting like a precarious Jenga tower block in danger of collapsing at any minute. It’s a testament to her skill the movie remains cohesively intact despite feeling weighed down by the seriousness of its tone and concepts towards the end.
Visually differentiating the three main settings by three cinematographers helps to establish the timeframes and adds to the context. The world of Jeanette and Douglas is warm and bronzed with a rich glow of sun and nature, the epitome of a cherished memory. Nicholas is entombed in an industrial workspace, grey with flat artificial lighting as seen through security cameras resulting in an un-cinematic, pre-digital TV production look. In contrast, Robyin and Charlie live in a white-washed future with diffused light and interior furnishings by Ikea. Robyin is also the character we see the least of, unless she stands in front of a mirror, as we view her story through her eyes.
The improvisational nature of Konstantinidou’s approach is evident in certain parts. There’s an occasional looseness in the script, a momentary hesitation or struggle in some of the interactions (more noticeable with Nicholas) compared with the flow and delivery in scenes that are more conventionally scripted. The performances in general are adequate though the shuffling between the three periods may have thinned the movie’s central emotional core.
Balancing the movie’s dramatic, technical and philosophical aspects is tricky. Mnemophrenia hits its mark where it aims at a cerebral level, but I suspect that’s not all it aims for. Like most of the best sci-fi movies, it burrows into the intricate relationship between technology and humanity. Some will find it stimulating while others will find it baffling. This is as much a brain-teaser as a head-scratcher.
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