Venice 2023 review: Memory (Michel Franco)

Memory is a film that, no pun intended, will long linger on the mind because of its measured unfolding of the story and a gut-wrenching central performance by Jessica Chastain.”

It’s always the bad memories that are etched into the mind. The worst ones may even destroy the soul. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just erase them? Alas, selective memory loss is reserved for children and politicians; the rest of us will have to live with the shadows of the past. Such is the case for the protagonist of Michel Franco’s latest film Memory, a surprisingly subdued adult drama about carving out a new life on the edge of society, driven there by dark secrets from a previous life. Devoid of Franco’s usual spurts of hyper-violence, Memory is a film that, no pun intended, will long linger on the mind because of its measured unfolding of the story and a gut-wrenching central performance by Jessica Chastain as a woman who reflects on the events that destroyed her life through a man that has trouble remembering her.

Sylvia (Chastain) celebrates thirteen years of sobriety with the members of her AA group. Living with her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber) in a small apartment somewhere in a rundown neighbourhood in New York, her structured life is comprised of her daughter and her social work in an adult day-care centre. The joys in her life are few, and the high school reunion her sister (Merritt Wever) has dragged her to is not one of them. While everyone else is on the dance floor embarrassing themselves, Sylvia is creeped out by a man who shows strong interest in her. He stalks her all the way back to her apartment and stands outside in the rain all night. Compassion wins out in the morning, and through social services they manage to identify the man. Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) suffers from dementia, which affects his short-term memory. After visiting Saul at home, Sylvia takes the confused man for a stroll through Central Park. It’s there that she confronts him with him having sexually abused her when she was twelve.

This turns out to be an incorrect memory, a defence mechanism to avoid having to deal with the real truth. Sylvia apologizes for her mistake, and she and Saul slowly develop rapport. Sylvia starts to more or less babysit for Saul when his brother and niece are away from home. Their bond further intensifies; Sylvia can reflect on the memories that caused her to become an alcoholic at a very young age, things she can remember all too well, while Saul relishes the chance to get out of the house. His issue with memory is the opposite of Sylvia’s: where she tries to forget, he tries to remember, using little things to jog his memory. He plays the Hammond part of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale over and over again because it keeps the connection to his late wife alive, for instance. But as a tentative romance between two damaged souls blossoms, Sylvia inadvertently pushes Anna away and into the arms of Sylvia’s estranged mother (Jessica Harper). This leads to an unavoidable confrontation where secrets that have been in hiding in Sylvia’s memories have to come to the surface.

Memory‘s strength doesn’t lie so much in it layering the themes of the film and finding a deeper meaning in them, but in the way Franco tells the story, feeding the audience small morsels of Sylvia’s past and letting the audience infer the rest of it. This makes for an absorbing film that runs on withheld emotions. Once the lid is blown off in the film’s final third the drama flies high, but up until then Franco and Chastain keep it intentionally small with cards close to the vest. Moments of intimacy are uncomfortable, signalling abuse in Sylvia’s past; the span of her sobriety mirrors the age of her daughter, whose father is never spoken of. Memory leaves questions unanswered, lines open for the audience to fill in, and Chastain’s tense performance intensifies the audience’s engagement. In difficult moments the actress’s face stiffens but her eyes tell the story. It’s an exceptional performance of a bruised woman who finds an oblivious sounding board that takes it all in without question. Sarsgaard in this role plays on the confusion of the soft-spoken Saul, whose almost child-like openness awakes something in Sylvia. The supporting cast supplements the two leads with equally strong work, in particular Timber and Harper as the two other halves of Sylvia’s difficult mother-daughter relationships.

Franco keeps a tight grip on the film, never letting the pent-up emotions get the better of the story. He only lets loose in the volcanic confrontational scene where the truth finally comes out. Normally in his films these scenes would include shocking violence, but fortunately he opts out of it this time. Instead, the scene is played out in a long, static shot with a carefully arranged mise-en-scene, its intensity rivalling the fight between Leonard and Felicia Bernstein in Bradley Cooper’s Maestro. But whereas that film was at times exuberant, Memory is devoid of melodrama almost to a fault (not that it would be expected of Franco). Filled with moments that serve as breadcrumbs to solve a mystery of the human condition, the film has indie sensibilities but the feel of an adult drama from the ’70s. Memory sees Michel Franco finally delivering a film that doesn’t need to mix its existentialism with cruelty towards its characters, instead binding two lost souls to prove that the proverbial Jill does have a Jack.