Mnemophrenia (2019)

“What if, like, a fairy godmother came down from the sky, and she said, ‘Jeanette,  with one wave of my magic wand, I’m going to give you the perfect life.’ What would you say?” 

This is Douglas (Tim Seyfert) speaking as he lies on the grass alongside his addressee, Jeanette Harper (Freya Berry) – through whose adoring point of view we see him. Douglas is handsome and attentive, the park is sun-dappled – and so this opening scene to Eirini Konstantinidou’s Mnemophrenia is idyllic, almost Edenic. It is also, like the ‘perfect life’ to which this Prince Charming refers, a fiction. For some years after this ‘event’, Jeanette is working through the trauma of discovering that a part of her recollection is fake. Douglas is a false memory, as is the whole summer that Jeanette spent in his company aged 18, when she dreamt of joining him on a boat trip around the world before finally deciding to stay put and ultimately to settle for a less perfect, less happy family life with someone else. Jeanette’s youthful romantic adventures with Douglas took place entirely in the realm of Virtual Reality, only for her brain, via a newly emergent psychological disorder known as ‘mnemophrenia’, subsequently to confuse these counterfeit yet formative experiences for real memories. 

Now attending a therapy group for fellow sufferers of mnemophrenia, Jeanette is making a documentary on the process, while confronting the harrowing realisation that Douglas – who was an artificial construct – established a standard for Jeanette that no reality could ever meet, so that she now feels estranged from her (ex-)husband and even her own child. This, however, is only the first part of Mnemophrenia, set in the ‘near future’. Its other two parts, set in the ‘mid future’ and ‘far future’, will not only trace the transmission of this condition through later generations of Jeanette’s family, but also its evolution from perceived disease to a new (yet ancient) kind of ancestral channeling and journeying into otherness.

In fact Jeanette’s story is developed from Konstnatinidou’s previous short(ish) film Mnemophrenia: The Beginning (2013), while the other two stories follow from the first and are interwoven with it. In the mid future, Jeanette’s grandson Nicholas Morgan (Robin King) is Senior R&D Manager for VR tech company MemoFilm, and must decide whether to toe the corporate line, however corrupt it may be, or to take his experimental, multi-sensory Total Cinema system (including a headset that can record and transmit a real person’s live experiences and thoughts) to a band of technological revolutionaries called Future of the Liberated Mind who want to make it open source. In the far future, terminally ill lecturer Robyin (Tallulah Sheffield) hopes to use an implanted chip to live the experiences of her ancestors (Jeanette, Nicholas) as part of an ’empathy study’, even as her husband Charlie (Robert Milton Wallace) worries that he is losing her, in her last days, to the other identities that she is adopting.

Mnemophrenia is a tripartite exploration of a speculative future (or graduated futures) in which virtual reality slowly evolves into a system that allows individuals to assimilate the recorded experiences of other people (simulated or real) to their own. It evokes the implanted memories of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), or conversely the erased memories of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), or the recorded experiences of Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), or the mind/body transfer of  Yedidya Gorsetman’s Empathy, Inc. (2018). Yet at the same time Konstantinidou is far more interested in the psychological, philosophical and spiritual implications of this technology than in the sci-fi furnishings of her different futures. Accordingly all these envisaged worlds look much like our own. The only obvious signs of futurism here are to be found in the film’s superimposed digital manipulations, mostly replicating the three principal characters’ first-person perspectives as mediated through VR tech (and each shot by three separate cinematographers: respectively Mirjo Beutler, Petros Nousias and Richard Thomas). 

Jeanette’s summer jaunts with Douglas, undertaken through MemoFilm’s pioneering VR called ‘Video Palace’, are sufficiently realistic that she forgets that they are not real, causing her great distress later. Nicholas, however, who is almost permanently connected to his gear and who works in a wired-up lab, is always filmed through a filter of readouts and infographics that replicate (for the viewer) something akin to the experience of his Total Cinema. Robyin, who is connected via a discreet implant in her temple, experiences a more advanced kind of VR (including among its recorded materials the other two parts of Mnemophrenia) in a more fluid way that is only occasionally interrupted by video calls from her husband or doctor, even as she records her own glitchy deterioration. 

Much as Mnemophrenia plays upon the merger of the virtual and the real, it incorporates into its fictive textures a real interview with John Morton (Professor in Cognitive Psychology, UCL) who ‘plays’ himself, while its dialogue is largely improvised by the cast (credited as Konstantinidou’s co-writers) to add another layer of naturalism. In this respect it occasionally falls victim to its own success, with some scenes lacking the tightness of a more conventionally scripted film. At the same time, there is a complexity and subtlety to the way these three tales become entangled together to map the eventual shift of mnemophrenia from an ‘adverse neurological condition’ to a transformative gateway for human progress. Unusually for a science fiction, there is no violence, and apart from some low-level corporate skulduggery, the film is broadly utopian. Indeed, despite Jeanette’s anxieties about losing her agency to VR’s fantasies, ultimately this is a film about freedom of choice, and it comes with enough optimism to suggest that we really are capable of making choices that will ultimately bring us all together rather than set us apart. Even if VR grants wishes and fulfils fantasies like a fairy godmother, in the end, Konstantinidou suggests, we still always have a say.

© Anton Bitel