Memory (2023, dir. Michel Franco)

by | Feb 20, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 100 mins

UK Distributor: Bohemia Media

UK Release Date: 23 February 2024

WHO’S IN MEMORY?

Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Jessica Harper, Elsie Fisher, Brooke Timber, Josh Charles, Jackson Dorfmann, Tom Hammond

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Michel Franco (director, writer, producer, editor), Duncan Montgomery, Eréndira Núñez Larios and Alex Orlovsky (producers), Yves Cape (cinematographer), Óscar Figueroa (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A woman (Chastain) has a surprise encounter with an old high school classmate (Sarsgaard)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON MEMORY?

[This is a slightly re-edited version of our review for Memory from its showing at the BFI London Film Festival]

In a similar vein to Apple’s Causeway, Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco’s Memory is a film that rests almost entirely on its two central performances. Not that the rest of the film is of a significantly lesser quality, but it’s clear from the offset that the material is being made a hell of a lot stronger by the efforts of the lead actors. Both Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard are very much the driving force with their uniformly excellent turns, which turn an already solid movie into a true acting showcase.

Chastain plays Sylvia, a recovering alcoholic who works as a carer at a residential home for people with special needs, while also looking after her teenage daughter Anna (Brooke Timber). Though she maintains a good relationship with her younger sister Olivia (Merritt Wever), who has a family and seems much better off than Sylvia is, she is estranged from her wealthy mother Samantha (Jessica Harper) for devastating reasons that become more apparent later on.

Whilst reluctantly attending a high school reunion, Sylvia is perturbed by a seemingly creepy guy, Saul (Sarsgaard), who follows her home from the event, but it soon becomes clear that he means no harm, and we eventually learn that he is suffering from early onset dementia, for which he is being looked after by his brother Isaac (Josh Charles) and college-bound niece Sara (Elsie Fisher). Their initial encounter paves the way for some unexpected confrontations about their pasts which eventually turns into something more meaningful between them.

In case it wasn’t painfully clear by now, the best part of Memory is by far and away the two leads’ magnetic performances. Jessica Chastain, who despite her Oscar win for The Eyes of Tammy Faye is still thankfully making time for smaller, slightly less showy roles such as in this and Netflix’s medical thriller The Good Nurse, is endlessly compelling as she seeks out some dark and troubled places to take her character Sylvia to. You can feel a sense of anger and resentment bubbling away inside of her, again for reasons revealed later on that justify her emotions, but there is still a decent, albeit flawed, human being fighting back against it all, which Chastain excellently channels in an understated turn that conveys everything it needs to without going overboard.

Meanwhile, Peter Sarsgaard – who recently won the Best Actor prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival for his performance here – has plenty of material to work with in the more challenging role of the two leads, but he never makes his dementia-ridden Saul feel like a one-note archetype, instead tapping into a vulnerable and regretful side to the character that easily earns a healthy mixture of sympathy and empathy from the viewer. Sarsgaard gives an extraordinarily tender performance which humanises a character that is staggeringly easy to get wrong, something that the actor avoids by focusing more on his frustrations that arise from his declining mental condition, to where you really do feel for this guy as he tries to make sense of his current circumstances and how he can move forward amidst them.

The movie surrounding these two fantastic performances is also quite strong, though it is clear that they are indeed the main driving force behind most of it working as well as it does. Franco’s script and direction takes a smooth, matter-of-fact approach to the storytelling, not spending too long on certain revelations but still giving them enough time for them to land an emotional impact. Sometimes, though, the film will introduce a potential bombshell only to then backtrack significantly in order to perhaps make a certain person more likeable (one accusation early on at first seems to set the tone, but then it all turns out to be a misunderstanding, and then all is fine once more). Furthermore, it’s the kind of movie that comes to a complete stop just before things seem to be steering toward a more conventional conclusion, which can be abrupt and unsatisfactory in the eyes of some.

The filmmaking, though, is solid enough to overcome some of its narrative hurdles, and Franco manages to give his film a steady beating heart that does make you really fall in love with these two characters and their ultimate dynamic. However, it is the performances of Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard that are very much the combined central attraction, elevating the material more than it already has been to a level where it’s impossible to not be moved in some way by their very real and quietly devastating turns.

If nothing else, see Memory for them alone, but you might just be pleasantly surprised by the movie surrounding the two actors as well, which is powerful enough to stay long in your mind afterwards.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Memory is a moving drama from filmmaker Michel Franco that rests almost entirely on the excellent lead performances of Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, though the film surrounding them is mostly solid too.

Four of of five stars

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