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Joana Hadjithomas Khalil Joreige Memory Box Review

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Memory Box | 2021 Berlin International Film Festival Review

Memory Box | 2021 Berlin International Film Festival Review

Analogue Chronicles: The Past is Present in the Latest Memory Exercise from Hadjithomas & Joreige

A veritable remembrance of things past catalyzes the semi-autobiographical narrative from celebrated Lebanese directing duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige in Memory Box, their first narrative offering since the 2008 Catherine Deneuve led I Want to See. That title is itself a repeated sentiment in their new project, which is freely adapted from Hadjithomas’ own journals and tapes from 1982 to 1988 in this examination of a young woman’s traumatic memories as a teenager in war-torn Beirut, left behind in her family’s flight to Montreal. A pseudo-intergenerational dilemma transpires as a conflicted past is exhumed, the wintry Canadian metropolis framing a flashback mechanism of angsty teenage desires halted by a city under siege. However, the catharsis of their tale eventually stagnates as a dramatic narrative, and little is eventually gleaned about the three women affected by the arrival of a mysterious package one snowy Christmas Eve.

With a snowstorm bringing a hush over Montreal, teenage Alex (Paloma Vauthier) impatiently awaits her mother Maia (Rim Turki) to celebrate Christmas Eve. Her grandmother Teta (Clemence Sabbagh) is also in tow, but Maia is delayed by a secret meeting with her lover. A mysterious package from Lebanon arrives, which throws Teta into a panic, initially advising Alex to reject the delivery, which only piques the girl’s interest in its contents. As the three women celebrate the holiday, Maia becomes aware of the package, which contains a plethora of material she created for her best friend in Beirut from the 1980s, who recently passed away. Harsh words are exchanged between Maia and Teta, and Alex takes it upon herself to sift through her mother’s diaries and tape recordings, discovering she has more in common with mom than she thought. But secrets long repressed resurface with the presence of the box, and Maia at last makes herself vulnerable to her daughter.

Strangely, we never get a real sense of the adult Maia as a person (or her mom or daughter, for that matter). Memory Box comes to life when it’s reenacting the past, and the vibrant Manal Issa (Nocturama; Parisienne) as 1980s Maia feels both immediately familiar and relatable in ways none of the contemporary counterparts ever do. It’s also the flashback mechanism where Hadjithomas and Joreige add the most visual flourish, finding inventive ways to bring us into Maia’s teenage universe in ways both fanciful and tragic.

When a confrontation between Alex and Maia finally transpires, it’s rather muted, and a third act invested in a return to Maia’s homeland, reintroducing figures from her past, feels as hollow as the narrative’s insistent juxtaposition with Alex’s relations to the world through social media. There’s nothing about the present which feels as tangible and transportive as the physical debris from Maia’s past, but Memory Box doesn’t suss out any real juxtaposition of our tendency to recreate the past with lush detail from a scant few offerings. Comparatively, how Alex engages with the world, where everything is recorded or transcribed for immediate reaction, tends to feel lifeless and frivolous.

There are some interesting subtleties, and one wonders if a longer running time might have allowed for a greater comparison between adult and teen Maia. The necessity of her secret relationship to Raja created behaviors which Maia still uses to navigate the world. Once forced to keep her sexuality secret from her parents, she formulates the same response in keeping her current sexual relationship secret from her daughter, which of course is one of many aspects allowing for a pronounced distance between mother and child. The subject isn’t a clear matter of interest with the filmmakers, it seems, but somehow ends up being the most touching accent concerning how cultural mores continually force women into insular existences, even from their closest kin. Alex’s consumption of her mother’s belongings recalls The Diary of Anne Frank, and the ghost of Maia’s friend ends up feeling a lot like Frank’s imaginary one, Kitty.

Eventually, we’re left waiting for the other shoe to drop in Memory Box. What’s the big secret, the major twist? Some might be expecting a surprise like the shocking finale of Incendies (2010), another Canadian title in which a new generation is forced to return to their mother’s homeland only to learn of harrowing trauma (a veritable subgenre worthy of rumination). But Hadjithomas and Joreige opt to keep everything on an even keel, and while it’s a lot of fun to revisit the 1980s remnant of Maia’s past, her love for Fade to Grey by Visage and The Phantom of the Paradise and whatnot, a monotony sets in with Memory Box and ultimately feels like an intimate portrait more meaningful for its makers than the audience.

Reviewed on March 1st at the 2021 (virtual edition) Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition. 100 Mins.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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