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Featured Review

Memory ★★★



Released: 23rd February 2024

Director: Michel Franco

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Jessica Harper, Elsie Fisher, Brooke Timber, Josh Charles

The title of Michel Franco’s latest film carries double meaning, positing the inescapability of severe trauma against the loss of memory. Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) is living with early onset dementia, whilst Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) is living with the memories of abuse she endured as a young girl, with Franco exploring this thought-provoking narrative in twisting and interesting ways. Like in Franco’s previous feature Sundown, there is a level of legwork to be done by the audience, which can be both frustrating and alluring. Memory might falter in its latter stages as its ambiguity seems less an intriguing strength and more a sign that Franco is unsure where to take the story, but the central relationship is always one of great interest.

Memory begins at an anniversary event for Sylvia, celebrating her thirteenth year of sobriety. Her daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), squeezes her hand and tells her mother how proud she is. Instantly a difficult history of addiction and struggle is apparent. After Sylvia is followed home from a high school reunion by Saul in what initially appears to be a terrifying case of stalking, we find out about Saul’s dementia and Sylvia’s abuse as a child. Throughout the early stages of Memory, Franco subverts expectations we might have about the narrative, mirroring the complexity of memories and how they can fade and distort, disappear or never leave. This thorny, twisty nature sits perfectly against Franco’s distinctly pared-back, straightforward style.

As Sylvia and Saul’s relationship progresses—first as the former helping with the latter’s care and then as something deeper—Memory continually refuses to rest as something easily categorizable. It morphs into a fragile, complex love story, which is both its biggest strength but also the main source of its issues. Memory feels weakly mapped out in its latter stages and never assuredly delves into the complexities of its concept enough.

The two powerhouse performances by Chastain and Sarsgaard knot the film together. Their characters live in a present that is warped but happy for them; both actors push and pull each other in scenes, drawing out many levels of their own characters and the situations they find themselves in. Like the film itself, Chastain and Sarsgaard are raw and hold nothing back from this emotionally turbulent and atmospherically tense narrative. Franco allows them to envelop and control each scene with their impressive subtlety or heightened emotions.

Away from each other, both Sylvia and Saul are characters in their own right too. Sylvia not only lives with the abuse that she suffered as a child, but also with the fact that her mother (Jessica Harper) still doesn’t believe her—even her younger sister (Merritt Wever) has never outright backed Sylvia. Chastain harbours this resentment and anger throughout, allowing it to bubble at the surface before it erupts in a spectacular scene late in Memory. In contrast, the relationship between Saul and his brother (Josh Charles) is less well-drawn, and remains too unexplored in the film’s latter stages.

Ultimately in this film, everything comes back to memory, whether it is the suppression, the inescapability, or the terrifying loss of it. Franco’s screenplay might be mildly frustrating and contain some confusing character decisions, but it always keenly draws things back to the film’s title and concept. The journey you go on might leave you wanting more by its stuttering conclusion, but this evocative film is always tantalising in its themes, characters, and relationships.

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