Memory, the latest English language effort from Mexican auteur Michel Franco, is the kind of drama that constantly flirts with greatness, but never fully achieves it. It has powerhouse leading performances from two of this generation’s finest actors, one exceptionally drawn character trying to overcome trauma, and complicated feelings about the nature of forgiveness. What Memory lacks is a driving sense of purpose that goes beyond a surface level. In a film that revolves around two people coming together under unlikely circumstances and bonding through two different forms of emotional and mental suffering, there’s not much more to be seen and heard than a display of the actor’s talents. In some cases, that might be enough, but in the case of Memory, something has been sorely forgotten.
New Yorker Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) is a social worker at an adult daycare centre celebrating her thirteenth year of sobriety. Sylvia dotes upon her teenage daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), with the hope that she won’t make the same mistakes she made when she was younger. As if the stress of having an increasingly independent teenage kid and being financially taxed to a breaking point wasn’t enough, Sylvia has an emotionally triggering experience on the night of her high school graduation. An unassuming man named Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) follows Sylvia home from the event, and he ends up falling asleep outside her apartment on the street. It turns out that Saul has early onset dementia, and is in the care of his brother (Josh Charles) and niece (Elsie Fisher). Saul seems to like Sylvia, and his family would love it if she would agree to watch over him during the day while they’re away at work and school. At first Sylvia declines because she initially thinks Saul was part of a group of older teens that sexually assaulted her when she was young. But when it turns out that she’s mistaken, Sylvia and Saul carve out a unique, loving, and understanding relationship.
Memory is hard to explain because so much of it lies in the experiential nature of the plotting. In fact, outside of the multiple layers that make up Sylvia as a character, almost all of Memory’s plot revolves around experiences – past and present – and almost all of the film itself is plot. Writer-director Franco (New Order, Sundown) manages to include a few quiet, intimate, and frivolous moments between Sylvia and Saul, but most of them ring hollow in spite of both performers being at the absolute top of their game here. The characters are an interesting enough study in contrasts, in that one of them can’t remember much of anything, and the other has so much trauma to keep track of that she’s constantly in danger of spiralling into old habits. But by placing one character on such a wildly different storytelling plane as the other, Memory falls into complete imbalance.
From trying to protect Anna, to a hot-cold relationship with her sister (Merritt Weaver), to the reemergence of the naysaying mother (Jessica Harper) Sylvia cut from her life long ago, Chastain has a lot to pull from in a bid to craft a performance. She’s quite good, especially when it comes to expressing the raw, unfiltered frustration she feels towards people who didn’t believe her when said she was abused, something that comes into even sharper focus when even more tragic backstory is made known late in the film. There’s so much to Anna that Saul simply comes across as a good listener with a kind disposition, and not much else. And even that’s further muddled by the fact that there’s always a possibility – especially in a Franco film – that he could still turn out to be a total creep. Sarsgaard, who picked up an acting award at the Venice Film Festival last year for his performance here, keeps Saul’s kindness and sadness in a perfect sense of balance, but outside of being accused of a crime he (maybe?) didn’t commit, we know precious little about his past life. It could be rich. It could be tragic. Franco just simply doesn’t care as much.
This becomes a bigger issue when Memory pivots into romantic drama territory. Franco is skilled at showing emotional vulnerability, but struggles when depicting any sort of genuine intimacy. Too often, Franco relies on having his actors being physical with one another to showcase their love instead of doing anything meaningful. Again, part of this is a side effect of having one of the characters suffer from dementia, which means meaningful conversations only happen on occasion, but with so many blank spaces in one of the characters, it’s hard to buy into a mutual attraction. Chastain and Sarsgaard have good chemistry whenever they’re engaging with one another, but Franco’s approach is so hurried that it refuses to see both halves of this couple as emotional equals in need of comfort and love. (Memory also says nothing about broaching the topic of consent in a sexual relationship, which one would think that an abuse survivor like Sylvia would want to discuss, and something that a person with dementia might not be so good at granting.)
Memory sinks down further towards the end, culminating in a salvo of cliches and predictable plot devices. One initially hopes that these bumps in the road will build to a much grander and hopefully impactful finale, but Franco kind of ends Memory out of nowhere. It’s not really an ambiguous ending, and in a way it’s kind of sappy sweet, but Memory is also a film that’s completely missing its final act. It ends when Franco wants it to, not because anything has seemingly run its course or a greater point has been made. What could’ve built to something genuinely empowering for both characters instead feels like the audience being thrown a bone for having to grapple with troubling and triggering subject matter. That’s a strange setting for a filmmaker like Franco, who usually doesn’t care to give his audiences any cathartic quarter, and the results are both his gentlest and most inauthentic work to date.
Memory opens at Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, Cineplex Fifth Avenue in Vancouver, and Cineplex Forum in Montreal on Friday, January 19, 2024. It expands to Ottawa on January 28 and to additional Canadian cities throughout the winter.
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