THE STORY – Sylvia is a social worker who leads a simple and structured life. This is blown open when Saul follows her home from their high school reunion. Their surprise encounter will profoundly impact both of them as they open the door to the past.
THE CAST – Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Jessica Harper, Elsie Fisher, Brooke Timber & Josh Charles
THE TEAM – Michel Franco (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
As a once 13-year-old alcoholic, Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) has now, in her adult years, become a creature of habit, relying, as many addicts do, on a set daily routine to keep their minds off taking a drink. Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) is a widower who has developed dementia and should best not be left unsupervised. It seems apparent that these two damaged people need to work out their problems on their own, but surprisingly, their lives come together in director Michel Franco’s quite unexpected drama “Memory.”
It’s “unexpected” because, until now, Franco has been known for such dark, feel-bad films as “New Order” and “Sundown,” and the idea of a romance — even a dysfunctional romance — seems like an unlikely project for the acclaimed Mexican director. Yet Franco turns out to be an inspired choice for “Memory” in his ability to explore the demons that haunt and motivate this pair.
When we first meet Sylvia, she is clearly a woman who has experienced some kind of trauma: her Brooklyn apartment is a fortress with numerous door locks installed to protect her from the outside world (She is even uneasy with a male repairman entering her home). With her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber) encouraging her to get out more, she attends a high-school reunion (which she hates) but becomes alarmed when she is followed home by a strange man who camps out at her front door.
That man is Saul, who remembers nothing of the incident the next day. When Sylvia stops by to check on him, she accuses Saul of having been part of a group that sexually assaulted her when she was 12, an accusation that soon proves false. As an apologetic Sylvia begins seeing Saul more often, they begin to form a bond, and soon, she becomes his full-time caretaker, much to the relief of his harried brother (Josh Charles). Eventually, however, as their bond grows into something deeper, the result is a relationship that becomes unsettling to those close to them, particularly Sylvia’s sister Olivia (the always-great Merritt Wever), who has secrets of her own.
Thanks to Franco’s script and the skill of his cast, we quickly come to care about these broken individuals and worry about their eventual happiness, all the while aware that being together might be the worst possible outcome for them both. The neurosis of one might trigger the dysfunction of the other with possibly tragic results, and the anxiety provoked by that outcome hangs uneasily like the sword of Damocles over the entire film.
That we do care so much is primarily thanks to the chemistry of the film’s two leads. Chastain, for example, leans into Sylvia’s trauma with a toughness I haven’t seen in her work for at least a decade. With her hair pulled back and little makeup, she builds an almost impenetrable protective shell around the vulnerable Sylvia, who’s been scarred with such deep emotional wounds that she does everything in her power to keep her daughter from experiencing them as well. Sylvia’s final confrontation with her emotionally distant mother (a terrific Jessica Harper) is as riveting as it is unexpected, with Chastain delivering a powerful range of emotions when the truth is finally revealed to all.
For his part, Sarsgaard, who won the Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup for Best Actor for this performance, delivers a master class in subtlety as Saul. His greatest challenge — communicating Saul’s occasional loss of memory without seeming bewildered himself — is handled with skillful ease. Yet he carefully reveals the dilemma Saul must face every time he returns to lucidity and is forced to evaluate every situation anew. It’s finely detailed work by Sarsgaard and one of the best performances of his distinguished career.
Yet, for all of the film’s emotional high points, there’s a blur in each character’s history that creates a certain distance from us. Events are alluded to or whispered about (the way they often are in families) that we really need to understand if we are to know these two people more fully. For example, Sylvia’s history of lies or the details of Saul’s marriage are key issues of which Franco’s script provides barely a mention of. It’s a credit that we care about Sylvia and Saul as much as we do, but a frustration that the film keeps us from knowing more.
Nonetheless, the fact that “Memory” dramatizes the challenging subject matter of trauma and dementia as effectively as it does without relying on cheap sentimentality is achievement enough. To get performances of the caliber that Chastain and Sarsgaard provide in “Memory” is a sweet bonus indeed.