‘Memory’ Review: Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard Are Riveting as Broken People Fumbling for Connection in Michel Franco’s Moving Drama

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The title of Michel Franco’s laser-like drama about trauma and connection, Memory, embraces past experiences inescapably real or distorted, repressed or lost forever, reachable only intermittently through haze or insistently demanding to be reckoned with. While hope is a quality not readily associated with the Mexican auteur’s work, it keeps surfacing here to extend a lifeline, even as we wait for the other shoe to drop. In that regard, Franco’s latest represents a slight departure, without surrendering the director’s signature austerity and intensity. He’s helped considerably by Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, two riveting leads who hold nothing back.

Shot by Franco’s regular DP Yves Cape with a no-fuss, unblinking gaze, the film has a textured feel for its Brooklyn locations, giving clear definition to the characters’ world. It also benefits from an unusually solid supporting cast, including Merritt Wever and Josh Charles; Jessica Harper in a welcome return to a substantial role; Eighth Grade revelation Elsie Fisher; and relative newcomer Brooke Timber, showing great promise as an adolescent whose maturity has been accelerated by being stuck in the middle of adults’ mess.

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Chastain plays Sylvia, a recovering alcoholic, three years sober, and a care worker at a facility for people with mental health conditions. Guarded in the extreme and clearly damaged, the single mother lives with her daughter Anna (Timber) and is so vigilant in her supervision that the teenager complains she’s the only girl in her class without a boyfriend.

At a high school reunion to which she’s dragged along by her younger married sister Olivia (Wever), Sylvia bristles when she’s approached by fellow attendee Saul (Sarsgaard). This causes her to bolt, and he freaks her out by following her home on the subway, camping outside the front door of her apartment building. When she finds Saul still there unconscious the next morning after spending all night in the freezing rain, Sylvia calls the emergency contact on his ID, his brother Isaac (Charles), to come retrieve him.

Unsettled by the encounter, Sylvia goes to see Saul, confronting him angrily about incidents from back in school that permanently scarred her. But Saul has dementia, and while his recall of the distant past tends to be better than that of recent events, high school is pretty much a blur. It turns out Sylvia’s memories of that period are not entirely accurate either, so when Isaac’s daughter Sara (Fisher) before heading back to college asks about her availability to help take care of Saul, she accepts.

As they begin spending more time together, the evolving closeness between Sylvia and Saul reveals the acute loneliness they have in common.

Chastain and Sarsgaard bring enormous pathos to the mix of caution and need with which they navigate their tentative bond. There are touching moments such as his elation over the organ riff in “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and gentle humor when he sheepishly reveals while watching a movie that it’s a futile activity for him, since he can’t remember the beginning by the time he gets to the end.

Both actors play their characters’ nervous dance around trust issues with affecting emotional candor; likewise, their hungry clumsiness when the relationship becomes physical. They draw together and pull apart as the changes in Sylvia’s carefully regimented routine throw off her composure, and Isaac takes steps to block her from seeing his brother.

In an adjacent thread that eventually spills over into Sylvia’s time with Saul, traumatic childhood experiences become exposed like raw nerves when she discovers by chance that her estranged mother, Samantha (Harper), has made contact with Anna through the teen’s aunt. The volatile elements of sexual abuse, denial, silence and guilt are familiar from many films of this thematic nature. But the taut interplay among the women in the ensemble creates genuinely distressing and moving moments.

Whether the nascent connection between Sylvia and Saul is resilient enough to withstand all this becomes a key question that Franco and his actors handle with sensitivity. The director’s stylistic minimalism — he could almost be a Dogma adherent — is highly effective at intensifying the focus on the characters’ inner lives and the turbulent churn of their feelings.

Sarsgaard is particularly strong here, fully inhabiting Saul’s vulnerability and his dazed embarrassment when he’s suddenly out of his depth, but nonetheless summoning moments of strength and assertiveness.

Chastain can lean a little hard into technique at times, showing the work behind the characterization, and Franco’s writing has a hint or two of textbook psychological study, like making Sylvia a compulsive cleaner as something she can control when her equilibrium feels threatened. But there’s blistering pain in Chastain’s performance, and years of rage behind the reinforced walls Sylvia has put up around herself. The wariness with which she feels her way around tricky situations makes it clear that trust will never come easily to her.

Memory is arguably Franco’s most compassionate film — and the best of his English-language features, following Chronic and Sundown. You long for Sylvia and Saul to get beyond the many hurdles in their path and find mutual solace, a marked change from the bleak finality for which the director’s work is predominantly known.

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