Films dealing with brain diseases such as dementia have long been overwhelmingly emotional experiences that pulled on heartstrings, emphasizing its characters’ ordeal and showcasing the intensity of the suffering especially when there are no solutions in sight. It is refreshing, therefore, to see films like Memory, Michel Franco’s latest, which does not attempt to be emotionally manipulative but rather invites us to ponder, observe and place ourselves in its characters’ shoes, asking ourselves about the choices we’d be inclined to make, the sacrifices we would potentially have to endure and the consequences we’d have to face.
A minimalistic, restrained picture, Franco chooses not to overwhelm the audience with emotions, opting for a more subtle narrative experience that was not always the Mexican filmmaker’s signature style (his 2020 film, New Order, for instance was a loud, angry film that played on social class struggles with much spectacle and shock value), a successful narrative and directorial decision that makes the film even more affecting. He lets the performances do the emotional heavy lifting while never letting the narrative feel exploitative – and it really pays off.
More of a character study than a traditionally structured three-act story, the film invites us to ask ourselves whether memory truly defines who we are, and who we would be if ever we lose, disregard or are deprived of our memories. It’s an interesting proposition, particularly because its protagonists are on opposite ends of the equation.
Sylvia (Jessica Chastain who delivers a soulful, wounded performance) is a caretaker, spending most of her time working at a New York center for adults with mental conditions. As we get to delve into her story, we experience Sylvia’s traumatic past, memories that have long haunted her, rendering her unable to move on, incapable of truly making peace with the past. No matter how much time has passed, painful memories have been omnipresent, impacting almost every aspect of her life, particularly her overprotective relationship with her daughter and troubled relationship with her family who had long questioned her recollections, opting not to believe her rather than offering support. Unable to let go of the past and wishing those memories never existed, Sylvia’s memories define who she has become, placing her in an invisible prison with an unlikely chance to ever be truly free.
Enter Saul (a magnificent, heartbreaking Peter Sarsgaard, who won Best Actor at Venice for his performance), a man struggling with dementia. Unlike Sylvia, Saul is trying to hold onto the memories he seems to be gradually losing with each passing day. He keeps photo albums and spends his days writing details he is afraid would fade into oblivion, clinging to every remaining vivid memory in fear of eventually losing it. Unlike Sylvia whose memories have been associated with fear and trauma, Saul’s fading memories drive him forward, making him even more alive, trying to enjoy every possible moment while realizing things will most likely only get worse. Despite the risks, he frequently leaves his house (often under the watchful eye of his brother, played by Josh Charles, and his thoughtful niece played by Elsie Fisher), never wishing to be trapped in fear, choosing to live and experience life no matter how little his recollections would later be, rather than merely succumbing to his mental state.
At a high school reunion, Sylvia meets Saul. Although they don’t exchange any conversations that night, Saul follows Sylvia as she walks back home. This eerie encounter becomes even more bizarre as he stays all night on the street looking at her balcony – and when she confronts him in the morning, she is stunned to find out that he simply has no memory of what or why he’d done that. Sitting in the freezing cold, Saul seems lost, confused and unable to explain himself – but Sylvia does not buy that at first.
Linking Saul to some of her painful high school experiences, Sylvia decides to confront Saul, only to later discover she’d wrongly accused him. She soon finds out about his condition, realizing the tough battle he’d been facing. Their relationship gradually evolves and she eventually quits her day job and becomes his caretaker. But as they develop feelings for each other, their relationship with memory comes to the surface, forcing them to grapple with tough choices related to the past, present and future.
Meanwhile, Sylvia’s relationship with her family grows more strained: she grows more overprotective of her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber), overseeing every decision makes, prohibiting her from going on dates and supervising her every move. Projecting her own past traumas and unshakeable memories onto her daughter, Sylvia sees her as an extension of herself, fearing the worst could happen to her. She makes it clear that she could never get in touch, let alone meet, her grandmother (an excellent Jessica Harper) as she can’t let go of how cruelly she was treated by a mother who never believed her daughter’s pleas about childhood abuse. Sylvia’s supportive sister (Merritt Wever) tries to hold the fractured family together, secretly allowing her mother to meet her granddaughter while also offering whatever help she could to her bruised sister. As the family issues grow overbearing, they push Sylvia to a breaking point, pushing her over the edge as she continues to be tormented by memories she can’t dissolve.
By placing his two protagonists on opposite ends of the memory spectrum, Franco lets us observe how clinging on, or wishing to get rid of, memory begs the question of whether we could ever exist in independence of our past recollections and whether we could muster the courage to see ourselves solely in the present, relishing the moments we’re living without having to deal with the past and allowing ourselves for once not to be defined by who we once were. By experiencing what life has to offer right now, enjoying every moment no matter how temporary or short-lived it might be, perhaps we could finally rebuild our sense of self and celebrate our joy of existence.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. MUBI will release Memory in the U.S.