Two struggling New Yorkers find comfort in each other in affecting indie drama Memory
Where Mexican director Michel Franco’s last two films Sundown and New Order have been rife with brutal tales of vengeance and violent crime, his latest Memory is a surprisingly understated, delicate affair. Starring recent Oscar winner Jessica Chastain and Venice best actor winner Peter Sarsgaard the stripped back story leaves all violence in the past to focus on two damaged souls trying to recover from their trauma together.
Chastain plays Sylvia, a recovering alcoholic working in adult social care. She is a fiercely overprotective single mother to her 12 year old daughter Anna (Brooke Timber,) and whilst the two have an adorably close relationship Sylvia is also smothering Anna, refusing to allow her to spend time with anyone other than her aunt and cousins. It is clear from the opening scenes in which we join Sylvia at an AA meeting that she has suffered something deeply damaging in her history – she is noticeably distrustful of men, nervy in public and hides behind three door locks and an alarm system when in her apartment. When a strange man follows her home from her high school reunion it seems that all of Sylvia’s worst fears are coming true.
Once Sylvia decides the strange man is not a threat, she discovers that he is Saul (Peter Sarsgaard,) a former high school classmate. Now suffering from early onset dementia and unable to live independently he is cared for at home by his brother and niece and had followed Sylvia home after getting confused. Whilst she initially assumes the worst of Saul and accuses him of having caused her harm, Sylvia later comes to grow closer to the man, finding a strange freedom in being able to talk to a stranger who is refreshingly unencumbered by memory. Through spending time together Sylvia is finally able to unpack everything that has happened to her and start to move forward, though their relationship is unconventional and distrusted by Saul’s family.
A wholly character driven film, there’s not much to Memory other than serving as a vehicle for its two stars to shine. Chastain and Sarsgaard are magnificent, giving raw yet understated performances that mine the emotional depths of these two people that are plagued by memory or the lack thereof.
The directing and framing are unobtrusive, giving the audience a stage like experience as we watch the two leads fall apart and rebuild each other. A particular stand out is a tremendous scene in which Sylvia is finally able to confront her mother about her past, in the presence of the rest of her family. Chastain is huddled in the back of the shot emotionally breaking down, but there are no close ups, no shifts, no changes or pans. Instead, we watch all the characters in a single frame, observing their changes in body language as they hear the truth laid bare before them.
The central relationship between Sylvia and Saul is an interesting one and something that caused me to challenge my own notions of how we treat people with dementia. Where my knee jerk reaction was that it was incredibly inappropriate, there is an undeniably honest connection between them – and whilst the film is undoubtedly filled with damaged people making bad decisions, no one ever feels like they are truly in the wrong. At what point does someone lose their autonomy? At what point is someone no longer capable of falling in love? Whilst it doesn’t feel like Franco is intentionally probing the legal ramifications of their relationship there are certainly conversations that could be sparked by it.
My only issue with Memory was the slightly too convenient nature of Saul’s dementia. Despite him apparently being ill enough to need a carer, his symptoms never get in the way of his budding relationship with Sylvia. He always remembers who she is and what they’ve done recently together and seems to slot right into her family with barely a hint that there’s anything wrong with him at all. Whilst there’s plenty of grim reality sprinkled throughout the film, the slightly soapy ending couldn’t help but leave me waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Nevertheless, this is a beautifully crafted movie. A sensitive observational story helmed by two great talents at the absolute top of their game, Memory is by far Michel Franco’s best work. A sparse yet surprising film about recovery, family and the power of love to transcend even the most challenging of circumstances.
Memory is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival. Its general release date has yet to be announced