Michel Franco’s “Memory” examines how our ability to recall the chapters of our lives is everything, as we make sense of what we’ve lost and gained, as well as garner a perception of who we are.
Hearing that Franco wrote and directed the film gave me a sense of dread – I still remember his disturbing, punishing “New Order” (2020) and wondered if his new film would also leave me feeling like I’ve been kicked in the teeth.
Thankfully, the artistic goals and design of “Memory” are far more compassionate.
It’s about two people- a man named Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), a widow suffering from dementia, and a lonely single mother named Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), who hasn’t touched alcohol in 13 years but still attends her weekly meetings.
One night, Saul discovers Sylvia at a party and follows her home. We’re unsure if Saul is a stalker or someone from Sylvia’s past. The next day, Sylvia takes pity on Saul and slowly becomes a part of his life, though their tortured pasts make every day a struggle.
Sarsgaard plays his role without any Oscar-bait histrionics or showy demonstrations of his craft. Actually, he’s rarely been more still.
The actor finds ways to make Saul relatable and surprisingly sweet. This is one of my favorite performances Sarsgaard has given. Chastain has been consistently terrific for years, even in films that don’t deserve her, but here, she captures a deeply complex and fascinating woman who is determined not to derail her journey of daily self-improvement.
Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard reflect on the gray areas of 'Memory' https://t.co/XZwFkUkQRc
— The Associated Press (@AP) January 4, 2024
Franco’s screenplay and directorial approach can best be described as observant; the narrative never rushes into contrived incidents or feels determined by any kind of formula. Instead, Franco allows the camera to gaze at some scenes for such an extended amount of time, it’s possible to forget you’re watching a movie.
All of the actors here are so natural, “Memory” resembles something in between a documentary, or a Robert Altman drama. Because the acting is so real, a sense of voyeurism creeps in, which only happens if the performances are this extraordinary.
In addition to the two leads, a special mention goes to Jessica Harper, the veteran character actress who once starred in “Suspiria,” “Phantom of Paradise” and “Pennies from Heaven.” Harper plays Chastain’s mother and gives a ferocious performance.
Woody Allen & Jessica Harper
Stardust Memories, 1980 pic.twitter.com/CYpkgi4TtP
— Zuk (@pohhuy) August 23, 2020
Her final scene is unforgettable, an acting powerhouse that, like everything else in Franco’s film, is stunning but not dramatically forced.
Franco wants his audience to consider the long-term effects of trauma, as well as whether the love story that evolves is even appropriate, let alone possible. There are no easy answers here, but lots of truthful portraits and scenes that hit very hard.
While there aren’t a lot of big moments in “Memory,” it’s a stunning film that you won’t be able to get ahead of.
Three and a Half Stars