Memory review — Chastain and Sarsgaard are unforgettable

Written and Directed by Michel Franco | 99 min | ▲▲▲▲△

A story about two fragile people hanging on to each other for dear life, Memory is an intense, discomfiting drama. As a showcase for its performers it’s never less than impressive.

Those performers are Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard. Chastain is Sylvia, a social worker who works at a daycare centre for adults. She leads what you could call a buttoned-down life, frequently solitary in the city but for her 13-year-old daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber, sensational), and a sister, Olivia (the always solid Merritt Wever). One evening a man, Saul, follows her home from a high school reunion and falls asleep in the street outside Sylvia’s apartment. That’s Sarsgaard. Saul suffers from dementia — he writes notes down in a book to help his short term memory, but he can’t have a normal life anymore. He makes bad decisions, unknowingly.

It becomes very clear — in the way Sylvia is protective of Anna, in the way she diligently sets her security system at their apartment — that she is a survivor of some dark trauma that still simmers in her days, one that speaks to her beyond her visits to AA. She suspects that Saul is connected to that trauma and challenges him on it, but she misremembers.

And there’s the key for what the film is exploring, right there in the title — how memory informs identity, its relationship to fact, to truth, and to the past. He’s free of it while she’s trapped by it.

As Sylvia moves to correct her mistake, it opens a fissure between them where something special might grow — despite his illness and her suffering. His brother, Isaac, and niece, Sara (Josh Charles and Elsie Fisher) ask Sylvia to spend time with Saul, professionally speaking, which helps bring them together.

This isn’t a romantic film, especially. Franco leaves a lot of storytelling to the actors and plenty of gaps in the script to be filled by a chain of scoreless scenes shot in liminal spaces, rooms and parks, where the audience is asked to connect threads. The specifics of Sylvia’s past is one of them: The reason she won’t speak to her mother, Samantha (Jessica Harper), who is a real piece of work, and how that complicates things for Olivia, who does have a relationship with Samantha. The film also has class on its mind, with Sylvia living in a modest apartment compared to friends and family, eschewing anything that will compromise her freedom.

Chastain sublimates rage and grief in her jaw, neck, and shoulders. Sylvia is a spiritual New York sister to Chastain’s Eleanor, perhaps her greatest role in one of her greatest movies — they’re both trying to make sense of the world following life-changing pain.  But the real x-factor in Memory is Saul, whose behaviour can’t be predicted. His response to his existential condition is kindness, and the joy he brings to Sylvia’s life is real, but their opportunity for happiness is so fragile, like a stiff wind could blow it apart at any moment.

Much of this film has us anticipating that wind, praying it doesn’t come for Sylvia, Saul, and especially Anna. This is formidable stuff.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.