The Peter Saarsgard-Jessica Chastain bittersweet romance explores the double-sided nature of remembering.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Both the main characters in Michel Franco’s Memory are struggling to deal with the echoes of their past. Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), a recovering alcoholic and single mother to 13-year-old Anna (Brooke Timber), desperately wants to forget the unspoken traumas of her childhood. Saul (Peter Saarsgard), on the other hand, can’t grab a hold of his past. He’s powerless as early-onset dementia slowly but inevitably steals it from him. After their high school reunion, he wordlessly follows her home and spends the night standing outside her building. In turn, she visits him at the house he shares with his brother (Josh Charles) and niece (Elsie Fisher). Then she takes him for a walk and accuses him of participating in a rape that she endured at the age of 12, a crime that he has no memory of committing.
At this point in the film, you might anticipate a white-knuckle Death and the Maiden-esque turn in which someone seizes the chance to confront their possible tormentor. Instead, Franco’s screenplay takes the first of several welcome turns. Her sister (Merritt Weaver)—significantly the only member of her family she’s in contact with—demonstrates that it couldn’t have been him. As a result, a chastened Sylvia returns and gets talked into serving as one of Saul’s caregivers. A relationship unexpectedly begins to develop between the two, but they still must face the realities of both his ongoing condition and her deep-seated issues.
This description may make Memory sound like a ham-handed issue drama more concerned with showing off the stars’ abilities than making dramatic points. However, the film proves far more clever and valuable than that. Instead of milking Saul’s condition for melodrama, Saarsgard finds quieter and more effective ways of showing his life’s realities. At one especially tense and ultimately sorrowful point, he cannot remember which door leads to Sylvia’s room and which to Anna’s after using the bathroom in the middle of the night.
The material involving Chastain is perhaps not quite as nuanced, but it does lead to a number of powerhouse scenes. A standout comes when Sylvia finally confronts her monstrously self-absorbed mother (Jessica Harper in a brief but memorably toxic turn) about a particularly horrible family secret that everyone else wants to ignore.
[T]he messy ending better evokes the slippery nature of life and memory.
However, the story’s heart is ultimately the developing relationship between Sylvia and Saul. The scenes between them as they try to chart this unexpected new path are the best. Saarsgard (who won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at this year’s Venice Film Festival) and Chastain are both wonderful. They deliver some of the best work of their respective careers. Saarsgard imbues Saul with a sly charm that contrasts with the heartbreaking realities of his future. Chastain, on the other hand, excels at playing a woman whose confidence is betrayed by an internal tension constantly threatening to explode at any second.
To be sure, Memory does not exactly end in an entirely conclusive manner. It doesn’t neatly tie up all the issues raised. Instead, the messy ending better evokes the slippery nature of life and memory. It forces the audience to engage with the events and interactions instead of simply witnessing them play out. I recognize what I’ve described may not sound like a particularly fun night at the movies. Nonetheless, it proves an invigorating and challenging experience for those willing to take it on.