Michel Franco is a director who approaches unadorned tragedy with great familiarity; not as a shock or an inconvenience, but as the organizing principle of a chaotic world. His two last films, Sun Down and New Order, both focus on the downfall of the sad, privileged elite. His newest entry, Memory, navigates similar themes and emotions, only to subvert and chip away at them to find cracks of meaning — and ridges for romance — allowing just the slightest amount of light to get in. Memory primarily concerns Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), a social worker from a privileged background with fraught relations with her family. She lives alone with her teenage daughter Anna (Brooke Timber), and spends the majority of her time caring, if not worrying, about her child. She goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and brings her daughter along, and the film begins proper with the revelation that she is celebrating 13 years of sobriety — also her daughter’s age. Sylvia is equal parts calm and endearing, flighty and afraid. Her only social contact seems to be her sister Olivia (Merritt Wever), who begs her to get out more. Eventually, Sylvia acquiesces and joins Anna for her high school reunion.
At the reunion, she encounters Saul (Peter Sarsgaard, who won the Volpi Cup at Venice for his role here). It’s unclear whether or not she recognizes him, and Franco gives ample space for the viewer to be drawn in and confused by the pair’s non-verbal communication. Saul follows Sylvia home, and while he makes no attempts to follow her into her apartment, he does not leave. There is an intense familiarity found in their emotions, and for the viewer, it feels certain that they must share a history of some kind. When Saul remains outside, Sylvia panics, calls her sister, and subsequently struggles to sleep. In the morning, she goes outside and finds him still there, shivering in the dumpster. After finding an identification card around his neck, she calls Isaac (Josh Charles), his brother and caretaker, to pick him up. It’s revealed that Saul, a widower and former classmate of her sister’s, has early onset dementia and is in steepening decline. Sylvia is invited for coffee as thanks, and despite the cordial hostility of two semi-strangers, they seem to get along. It’s only on a walk through the park that Sylvia addresses their shared history, or what she remembers of him: he and his friend sexually abusing her when she was 13 years old. Sylvia leaves Saul abandoned in the park, but then experiences near-immediate regret. She goes to retrieve him but can’t, having no recollection of where they’d been. She eventually finds him just as night is setting in and leaves him back at his house, resolute to never see him again. Then his niece comes knocking on her door and begs her to become his caregiver, at a rate, and with incentives, that she needs.
In time, it’s determined that this memory of him is false. According to her sister, by the time he’d transferred to Sylvia’s high school, she had already transferred out. But the exact reason for her move remains vague, and its sinister contour slowly constricts over the remaining duration of the film, this incident revealing itself to be at the root of her disrepair with her family. She makes increasingly explicit overtures that something had happened to her in her childhood, something that she is not able to overcome because of the denial by others that it ever occurred and which still colors her present. But much of this narrative space occupies the film’s latter half, and before Sylvia does indeed become Saul’s caretaker, Memory follows a relatively conventional schematic, positioning Saul as the aggressor and Sylvia as the victim. But when she begins working with him, things take a turn; not only does an unlikely romance blossom, but both characters delve deeper into the unknowns of memory, and as a result, identity. Both are forced to come to terms with life’s uncertainty, as well as the mirage that is one’s glimmer of certainty, tempting people into the zones of dogma and fear. Sylvia begins to trust Saul around her daughter. In one instance that is never explored again, he allows her to enter his room when he is changing, totally exposed.
What makes Memory additive — to both Franco’s oeuvre and the filmmaking landscape as a whole — is its patience and non-judgment. Franco, here at his best, has crafted a careful narrative which weaves in ways that draw in the viewer (anchored by sensational performances from both Chastain and Sarsgaard), while giving them sufficient space to ask their own questions, to come to their own conclusions. Unlike in earlier works like After Lucia or Sun Down, Franco displays, through his restraint, a tender optimism for the possibility of redemption. That’s not to say Memory is a film without the usual tragedy one finds in Franco’s work, but it’s not a film that is tragedy in and of itself. It locates two people at their least stable and resolves with their heads somewhere above water, moving toward an inevitable descent that they neglect in favor of the present.
What’s so deft about Franco’s latest entry is the capacity with which he confronts the limitations of memory without deferring to common cinematic tropes used in its exploration. There are no flashbacks. There are no pictures. None of the characters, least of all Saul, have any authority over telling life as it truly happened. Instead, each deals in their own way with the ramifications of their failure to know, reckoning with the ways that past events, misremembered as they might be, have ramifications on each future moment, concretizing into a solid shell that forms the bounds of someone’s identity, and thus their life. With Memory, Franco offers a film that feels intentionally pared down, muted in color and in dramatic incident. But in this restraint, he’s able to richly arrange moments of subtle complexity, textured by both pleasure and pain, joy and grief, victory and defeat. There’s a keen, moving understanding that these moments give new meaning to the ones that came before, and so breathe new energy into the ones that will follow.
DIRECTOR: Michel Franco; CAST: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Josh Charles, Brooke Timber; DISTRIBUTOR: Ketchup Entertainment; IN THEATERS: December 22; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.