Michel Franco’s “Memory” is in the tradition of movies about broken people coming together, with all the heartbreak and melodrama required.
But “Memory” bucks the tradition of the cold films previously made by the director of the apocalyptic 99-percent-uprising thriller “New Order” and high-school bullying drama “After Lucia.” They’re films that seem calm at the outset, but you wait for the other blood-dipped shoe to drop. That shoe never quite hits the ground in the peculiar and sensitive “Memory,” which stars Jessica Chastain as a 13-years-sober alcoholic who reconnects with a former school classmate, Saul (played by Peter Sarsgaard), at a reunion she doesn’t want to be at anyway.
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Saul, as we eventually learn, has a form of dementia that alternates between total mental clarity and blackouts that leave him lost. Sylvia (Chastain) is an adult daycare social worker who forms a patchy connection with him after their creepy first encounter, and it turns to love.
Writer/director Franco leaves his heart ajar for perhaps the first time — his prior films, even his most recent “Sundown” about a man (Tim Roth) who abandons his family while on vacation in Mexico at a time of great need, maintain an emotional cool. “Memory,” unlike the rest, is a weepie but still a weepie for those who hate them, as the Mexican filmmaker keeps 10 feet of emotional distance from his characters at all times — until he doesn’t. “Memory” feels like what happens after a typical Michel Franco movie, the worst of the damage already done and out of the way. (No genocide or deus-ex-machina auto deaths here!)
Chastain proves once again why she’s one of the best American actresses working, here a welcome sight without makeup or artifice, freed from the prosthetics and wigs we’ve seen in her recent turns, like Oscar winner “Eyes of Tammy Faye” and her role as troubled country star Tammy Wynette in TV’s “George & Tammy.” “Memory” is more akin to her work on HBO’s “Scenes from a Marriage” and onstage in Broadway’s “A Doll’s House”; she’s unvarnished and hiding under no layers as a recovering addict with demons gnawing at her locked door. She’s also an unreliable narrator of her own abuse trauma, which Franco plays with to disorienting narrative effect.
Sylvia lives with her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber) in the waterside Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. She keeps multiple locks and an alarm system affixed to the front door of their two-bedroom apartment, and flinches when a maintenance worker who shows up turns out to be a man and not the woman she asked for. There’s a distrust around men she even reveals in the film’s opening scene, an AA meeting in which Sylvia is celebrating 13 years of sobriety. (Her daughter, who attends also, looks old enough for us to surmise that Sylvia got sober around the time Anna was born.) “You’re the only man who stayed,” she tells her sponsor, jokingly, but it clearly took her years to get to a joke like this without it being laced with pain.
Her suburbs-living sister Olivia (Merritt Wever, who never overwhelms with another effortless performance) encourages Sylvia to attend a Woodbury High School reunion, where people will be drinking. It’s there that a bearded man saunters up to her with a dazed grin. Uncomfortable, Sylvia leaves, but he follows her home on the train and then stands outside her apartment until morning in the rain. The next day, the kindly social worker in Sylvia activates, and she summons a ride to take Saul home to his brownstone in Brooklyn, where he lives with his understandably possessive brother Isaac (Josh Charles). But Sylvia feels some inexplicable pull toward Saul and the next day takes him for a walk in Central Park — Franco has a mostly passive relationship to New York City, with some of the geography not adding up if you’ve lived there long enough to know it.
It’s there that she drops a horrified unexpected bomb on this man whom we’ve learned from Isaac has dementia: Do you remember when you raped me when I was 12 and you were 17? She storms off, tossing his “In Case of Emergency Please Call…” lanyard into a trash can. “You deserve to be the way you are.” But again, that social worker streak kicks in, and she feels guilty, returning to find Saul. And as the pieces unfold, is she telling the truth in her allegations, or is she just a child of abuse and trauma who uses lying as a manipulation and coping tactic?
Meanwhile, dropping in as if from the sky, her estranged mother Samantha (Jessica Harper, and if you’re going to call upon a legendary actress to play a recalcitrant mother from Miami, it should of course be her) re-enters the lives of Olivia and her children. There are concerns that Sylvia has long been lying about childhood sexual abuse, concerns that even Olivia seems to corroborate, however wearily. Samantha’s sudden visibility in their lives isn’t deeply explained by Franco, who tends to keep exposition close to his chest.
But Sylvia and Saul continue to grow closer, and when they finally, nervously kiss outside of Anna’s school, it brings a heartfelt whoosh so unexpected from a director whose debut feature was about coerced sibling incest. You could safely call Sylvia and Saul’s first encounter a kind of demented meet-cute, and the rest of the movie unfolds to the structure of a romantic comedy. Obstacles get in the way, Sylvia volunteers to become his caretaker, what is each of them gaining from this if Saul oftentimes doesn’t know who or where he is? Details emerge to suggest Sylvia lied to Saul in her accusation, but he’s already forgotten them.
Sarsgaard plays Saul with a tentative energy, often vacant-eyed until he snaps into focus, while Sylvia, obviously loveless since sobriety other than her relationship with her daughter, is desperate for some kind of connection with another person even if it interrupts her controlled existence: Go to work, go to the AA meetings, pay the bills, take your daughter to school, push the horrors of yesterday under the proverbial planter in the corner.
And oh there are horrors, however offscreen and tucked in the past. When Sylvia, eventually flush in her caretaking-turned-romance with Saul, brings him back to Olivia’s to “meet the family,” she’s met with the terrible surprise of her long-gone mother Samantha there. The third-act swerve into a dysfunctional family breakdown during which all the ghosts of years ago are laid out in one harrowing scene — shot in Franco’s characteristic long-take style, working with cinematographer Yves Cape — feels just a bit pat for the measured drama that’s come before it.
But all the actors make such heightened operatic exposing of emotions believable even if the script feels on the nose at this final hairpin turn. The contrivances, as much as they are governed by the laws of melodrama, fall away because veteran performers Chastain and Sarsgaard give a pair of haunting, expert performances as damaged people making sense of their own agony together. Franco gets out of the way of his actors without manipulating them.
There’s an errant moment toward the end that shows Sylvia listlessly vacuuming, Chastain’s red hair flying out of place, alone again. The actress displays an extraordinary understanding of the mechanisms of control an addict must go through to keep out the bad and stay the course. “Memory” has the makings of a play in its hyper-focus on the central dilemma of an alcoholic woman and a mentally ill man trying to love each other.
Chastain has made a point in her career to play only women of inner strength. Sylvia’s isn’t immediate, but it’s there. Watching her hardened outsides come just slightly undone from the inside is as moving as watching Franco’s own do just that as he opens his heart up to caring for the characters he’s created. Is his dark imagination pulling a fast one on us? I don’t think so.
“Memory” premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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