What are you if you lose your memory? What parts of you are shaped by experience and what parts are in-built? If you don’t remember who you are, are you still you? These questions are posed by the 2015 film “Embers”.
It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario, filled with deserted, ruined cities and scattered survivors. The apocalyptic event was a disease which seems to have killed a majority of the population. Those who are left have no memories.
The director Claire Carre sets the scene beautifully, and without exposition. Nothing is explained to the viewer – we are shown scenes of various people and can work it out. A man and a woman wake up together, and do not know each other or even themselves. A child wanders alone until he meets an older man, who wants to take care of him but keeps on forgetting he is there. A man in a house tries to do research with many books, only to keep covering the same ground as he cannot remember what he has done previously. A woman wakes in a comfortable bed, and a computer voice questions her to check her memory, indicating she is in some sort of protective bunker. These scenes tell us what has happened quite clearly.
I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors, but they were all very good. Everyone brought the right sense of confusion, frustration, and struggle to their respective roles. It is also beautifully shot. Despite much of the environment being ruined, with broken cars and smashed up houses, it is visually quite stunning.
As the film progresses, it explores how people try to make sense of their environment in the absence of information. The man and woman invent a narrative where they are a couple, even making up names for each other. It appears as if the characters cannot make new memories, so they struggle to learn. The characters seem to have different levels of disability, indicated by how much memory they can retain at a time, and how much they can reason. A scene with the couple reflects this, where they enter a church and, on seeing light coming through a stained glass window, comment that the air is coloured and how it is magic. The man lights a match, but forgets that it will burn him.
On the more extreme disability, a woman living in a house the child comes across dresses up in costume and plays that she is a queen, apparently having regressed to a childish state. A young man has regressed further, almost animalistic in his behaviour, breaking things, hurting people and taking what he wants. He shows no real comprehension of his surroundings and is easily distracted, forgetting what he is doing.
The man in the house, however, seems to be much more functional. He can still read, for example, and is looking after himself reasonably well. He manages to take care of the boy when the child wanders into his area, much more than the other adults that the boy comes across.
The woman in the bunker is sharing the space with her father. They were living with others but over time everyone has left. The woman wants to leave too, telling her father that maybe it is alright now. He responds by asking why the ones who left have not made contact if that were the case. She is afe, but not satisfied. She wants to escape what is essentially their prison. The father tells her she will lose herself.
This is the essential question the film asks – are you merely the sum of your memories? Or are you more than that? The people on the outside have personalities, in spite of their struggles. The couple indicate this most clearly. They go to sleep, and wake up having forgotten each other again, but they reconnect. They get separated, and forget each other, but eventually, they reconnect. They are still the same people, and their attraction seems to remain, despite having to be re-established constantly.
The child never speaks. He is quite young – does he not speak because he was pre-verbal when the epidemic came and now cannot learn? He seems to manage other things. Really, because he does not speak, it is hard to know whether he has memory issues or not. Maybe the next generation are not affected? This is an impossible question to answer, though there are indications his memory is better than at least some of the adults.
If there is an issue with this film, it would be that here is no real narrative. The audience is shown a picture of societal collapse and its ramifications. The audience is invited to think about memory and identity. But there is no plot, and no conclusion.
Can humanity start again after this? We see some of the characters discovering everything again, as if seeing through the eyes of a child. There is a sense of wonder about the world. On the other hand, there is a sense of going around in circles. The man with the books, who we discover was ascientist, asks ‘how many times have you done this?’ The couple’s endless reconnection (and this might have happened many more times) means they cannot progress in their relationship. How does humanity start again if no one can learn? I think that is why there is no conclusion. The nature of the problem means that most of the characters are spinning their wheels. How can there be a conclusion with nowhere to go?
Don’t expect a story here, but “Embers” asks a number of very interesting questions about who we are, about identity and sense of self. I found it an interesting watch.