Memory, director and writer Michel Franco’s second foray into Indiewood is, among many things, about whether or not we miss high school. Sure, it’s not as bad as adult life, but most people did not have a good time in high school. One of those people is the film’s protagonist Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), a single mom reluctantly attending her reunion.
There, a man, Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) sits next to her, which prompts her to go to the subway. He follows her home, she helps him find his way home. Sylvia’s Good Samaritan response may be surprising despite of the history they have together as one of the men who sexually assaulted her when she was younger.
Most of the characters know about this assault and treat this as an accusation. Despite their history, Saul’s family tries to hire Sylvia, a social worker, to care for for him. And he needs his care because of his dementia diagnosis. There are a lot of problems with this situation, the biggest one being Saul’s presence as a catalyst to push her to confront the other man who assaulted her.
It may be difficult to understand why Chastain and Sarsgaard would play such characters. But sometimes, actors may be into playing psychologically ‘impossible’ characters. Besides, for the most part, Memory is successful at hinting at layers within its main characters.
One thing about the characters in Memory is that the power dynamic between the two of them is more complex than what it seems. Sylvia technically has the upper hand in caring for Saul. She tells him that she mistakes him for someone else, but she may have other reasons for telling him this outside of making him feel better about a past he barely remembers.
Saul and Sylvia are not who they seem, that seems obvious enough in Memory. Franco adds to the tension here by prolonging the time that both characters keep their facades. Viewers also notice this façade in scenes that Sylvia share with her sister Olivia (Merritt Wever), both of whom know what the former endured as a teen.
Th silences in Memory makes for either a frustrating or a rewarding cinematic experience. Viewers judge either people’s real lives or fictional ones, which is just as true in Memory. The judging part becomes more difficult here as Franco stretches believability to a breaking point. Caring for one’s abuser is one thing, but letting them into one’s home with one’s daughter is another.
Despite that, what eclipses Franco almost suspending disbelief are the techniques that make him a better filmmaker now than he was in his previous work. Here, he chooses long shots to obviously provide distance between his characters and his viewers. But this distance, if anything, makes them more emotionally compelling.
Watch Memory in select Canadian theatres.