Memory, the newest drama from writer-director Michel Franco and starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, is a scene around halfway through that draws attention to how much time has gone. In any other film, such a sequence would be part of a filmmaker’s natural approach to keeping their audience informed about the breadth of the tale. For Franco, it simply emphasises how the tale is practically unbound by time.
Days might tend to blend together in both joy and sorrow. The fact that this film is titled Memory, not to be mistaken with the horrible Liam Neeson action film from last year, is only one way it forces us to think about time. We are taken into a world so fully that you can only give yourself over to the delicate cadence it settles into as its two core characters strive to make sense of their traumatic past in increasingly unexpected yet very effective ways.
This all starts with intimate close-ups of numerous folks doing their own recollections at an AA meeting. They’re all there to chat about Sylvia (Chastain), who has made belonging to the group a central aspect of her life. When she is not present, she depends as much as she can on order and structure. She works as a social worker and is a mother to her daughter Anna, who is played with quiet honesty by Brooke Timber in her feature debut. Sylvia’s lone exception is her sister Olivia, played by the always exquisite Merritt Wever of the recently overlooked picture Midday Black Midnight Blue, who also looks after Anna.
The film’s examination begins in earnest when the sisters attend their high school reunion. It is there that Sylvia, who is plainly not having a good time, meets Saul (Sarsgaard), who sits at the same table as her. There are no words spoken, and she instantly gets up to go home. When he follows her, the inescapable stress she feels over this act turns to worry when he sleeps outside in the rain. She calls for help the next morning while keeping her distance from him. Following this, we find that Saul suffers from dementia and has a history of confusion.
While this mental clarity helps us comprehend how Saul ended up outside Sylvia’s flat, there is still plenty we don’t know about his history. When the two subsequently embark on what appears to be a peaceful walk in the park, she confronts him in further detail about why he followed her and expresses her belief that they indeed share a tragic history. Though this is the first time we hear Sylvia openly discuss a former incident of abuse, it is evident that she has been carrying this with her for quite some time.
Saul is perplexed and unable to respond to her queries, allowing us to speculate that he may have done something that he now cannot recall. For a while, Franco puts us on the unsteady narrative footing that feels like it could nearly spin out of his control, but the succeeding course it follows from then on is where the picture settles into something more surprisingly affecting. While not cheesily optimistic, since there is still a lot of anguish in the picture, it does follow a tortuous journey towards some kind of recovery.
One seemingly insignificant remark made by Saul prior to the two’s initial talk in the park takes on more significance in the rest of the film. The strangers had both visited this park in the past, but they had both seen that it had fallen into ruin over the years. When Saul points out that this is because there has been no one to look after it, he is no longer referring to the park. Each of them has been sent adrift in life in their own way. Sylvia’s mother never believed her about the abuse, allowing her to deal with the trauma almost entirely on her own.
Similarly, Saul has a few people in his life, most notably his brother, but it is cold consolation as he is virtually imprisoned away at home while his mind deteriorates. Franco films this with formal care and a lack of showiness that manages to realistically immerse you in the sentiments of the people despite the fact that we only get to witness little parts of each of their lives. It’s evocative of his last film, Sundown, even if it’s not quite as thoroughly stunning. What keeps it shattering is the stunning performances that knock you flat.
A picture like this would most certainly come apart if its protagonists were anything other than flawless. Fortunately, the narrative is brought to life by two seasoned actors at their very finest. Both Chastain and Sarsgaard produce scenes that rip through the soul. Everything they do seems absolutely and utterly sublime, drawing us right up into the film’s various agonies but keeping Franco at a safe distance.
Nothing is wasted, and there are a number of critical parts where the two are separated at the end where you feel every single emotion that has finally been allowed to break free. It’s the kind of picture that may come dangerously close to falling apart, but seeing it stay together makes it all the more impressive.
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