Remembrance of Things Past: Franco Bargains for Benevolence in Purgative Love Story
“Memory is something so complex that no list of all its attributes could define the totality of the impressions through which it affects us,” asserted Andrei Tarkovsky, concluding it is a ‘spiritual concept.’ Such are the subtle underpinnings of the aptly titled Memory, the latest from perennial provocateur Michel Franco. Tackling a pair of troubled souls each wrestling with their own state of a stifling limbo, for the first time Franco seems interested in exploring a workable sense of catharsis for two people we’re led to feel a palpable sense of compassion for. Jessica Chastain leads the Brooklyn set narrative as a steely, recovering alcoholic with traumatizing secrets, a sinister reunion with someone from her past potentially and circuitously promises a sense of salvation, though not without considerable sacrifice.
Sylvia (Chastain) works as a social worker in adult day care center, leading a life of rigid patterns, raising her teen daughter Anna (Brooke Timber) alone. She’s just received a graduation party thrown by her sponsor at AA, having been sober for thirteen years, when her daughter was born. Sylvia’s younger sister Olivia (Merrit Wever), suggests they attend her upcoming high school reunion, seeing as it was a school they both went to. Olivia surreptitiously suggests a certain man won’t be in attendance. At the end of the night, Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) approaches Sylvia, and she immediately leaves the event. But he follows her all the way home, sleeping outside on the sidewalk. Sylvia is terrified, but in the morning, she demands to know what he wants. In his wallet is a medical card stating he suffers from dementia, with his brother as an emergency contact (Josh Charles). However, Sylvia is certain she knows this man, and believes he was one of the boys who systematically sexually assaulted her as a young girl. A confrontation ensues, but perhaps memory is serving neither of them well.
Those familiar with Franco’s filmography, defined by characters who find themselves in tortuous, punishing situations from which they never recover will likely approach Memory with tentativeness, spending most of the time waiting for a ruinous, explosive moment. This familiarity may have created an already built-in anxiety, which also keeps us at a distance from Sylvia and Saul. But their’s is a relationship set in a powder keg, both of them cruelly defined by their pasts, Sylvia because she hasn’t been allowed to let go of it and Saul because it’s the only thing he can remember due to his increasingly accelerated medical condition. On top of this, there is the warping reality of what memory really is, where the past takes on different shape as we try to make sense of it, fading overtime, details filled in. And its because of this Sylvia has been gaslit by a detached mother (Jessica Harper), who doesn’t want to believe the truth about her daughter’s trauma. In Franco’s grand moment of confrontation, it takes her younger sister’s recollection of memory to validate Sylvia’s truth. Which, ultimately, may not yield the results this family needs, but may allow for a sense of restitution Sylvia needs.
As she does with every role, Chastain grounds Sylvia with admirable conviction, which assists in overcoming how arguably well-preserved she appears with such a fraught history. Sylvia is a character some may initially find off-putting, an effect all resilient, outspoken women tend to have since it defies expectations about how they’re supposed to behave. As we come to find, her tenacity came with a high price. What’s more, she’s a gracious, empathetic spirit. The film’s first major revelation, where we learn she believes Saul was a cohort of her high school rapist is upsetting, not because of her outburst of anger but because her remorse leads her back to assist Saul, basically a vulnerable adult she’s left stranded in a park.
Her relationship with Merrit Wever’s Olivia is a complicated one, a bond which exemplifies familial attachment styles born out of self preservation. For anyone who’s ever been estranged from a family member who is still in close association with the centralized group dynamic, this scenario is achingly authentic. Likewise, there’s a nagging ambiguity about the relationship developed between Sylvia and Saul beyond our suspiciousness of Sylvia’s potentially marred memory. Her growing attraction to him tends to seem alarming, at first. Their relationship will ultimately lead to her taking care of him as if he were a helpless child, and yet he offers her the ability to tap into an emotional awakening she so clearly needs.
Reuniting again with DP Yves Cape, Franco seems to be utilizing Brooklyn merely as the neighborhood Sylvia has burrowed herself into, her daughter Anna squirreled away into the safety of their little, unassuming fortress. Her borough is also meant to be a reflection of her interiority in comparison to her jet-setting mother (an easy to despise Jessica Harper) and comfortably situated sister, each leading lives seemingly unblemished by the events which debilitated Sylvia. Josh Charles and Elsie Fisher round out the supporting cast, the well-intentioned family of Saul who seem to be benefiting from his debilitation considering they now control his posh home.
Sarsgaard has always excelled at playing characters with a foreboding edge, and he’s a novel choice to play Saul, who ends up being the broken olive branch Sylvia needs. Their introduction at a high school reunion, a fitting event to trigger unhappy memories, happens wordlessly, unfolding in an eeriness which Franco doesn’t allow us to orient our opinions upon until much later in the narrative. Unlike his English language debut, Chronic (2015), which also deals with a character working in health care who crosses boundaries, Memory surprises in how Franco’s calibration seems more attuned to characterization this time around rather than recording their reactionary responses to harrowing traumas. Instead, their horrors are part of the past, threatening to strangle the present, which also explains Sylvia’s attraction to Saul’s ‘spotless mind’ plight. To return to Tarkovsky, who also suggested vulnerability was a facet of ‘the freshness of being,’ and contends “hardness and strength are death’s companions,” it would seem Franco’s Memory actually brings this scenario at least to the precipice of hope, his surprisingly impassioned lovers overriding the limitations of their situations and despite the odds.
Reviewed on September 8th at the 2023 Venice Film Festival – In Competition. 100 Mins.