“Memory” feels like the “Silver Linings Playbook” of Michel Franco’s career: an unexpectedly accessible romance between two damaged human beings, from an independent director who’s been known to put characters through some of life’s most punishing indignities. The previous film of Franco’s that it most resembles is “Chronic,” though the tough-love auteur spares us the bummer ending this time around. In that movie, he followed a hospice nurse through his rounds, then abruptly cut to black when the guy was sideswiped by a car. Womp-womp. When a director does that early in his career, audiences are right to be wary.
Franco is more merciful to his characters in “Memory.” Before meeting one another at a high school reunion, recovering alcoholic Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) and widower Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) have endured more than their share of suffering. She remembers being sexually abused as a girl, and believes that Saul might be one of the older boys involved. He suffers from dementia, making it difficult to trust what he remembers, whether it happened in the distant past or just five minutes ago.
It may sound like a theoretical conceit to bring such characters into each other’s lives. Sylvia and Saul’s complementary memory conditions suggest Aristophanes’ notion of soul mates: two-headed, four-limbed beings, separated by the gods, reunited at last. She’s tormented by past trauma she can’t forget, while he’s bothered by an inability to recall much of anything. But Franco treats his characters like real people, rather than constructs, and in this case, the actors are especially convincing in their roles. Chastain has made far more awards-friendly movies than this, but she’s never appeared more vulnerable on-screen — as both the character and a performer willing to tackle what’s sure to be a divisive character.
Consistent with Franco’s earlier films, “Memory” was made in an austere, Bressonian register (the helmer may as well be the Michael Haneke of Mexico). His actors practice hiding their emotions much of the time, DP Yves Cape’s camera hardly ever moves and there’s no musical score — just half a dozen or so instances of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” a meaningful song for Saul. Franco expects his audience to work for its reward, and that surely means alienating a segment who’d rather watch pretty pictures with likable protagonists than a film with so many visual and moral gray areas.
“Memory” introduces Sylvia in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She’s 13 years sober, the same age as her daughter, Sara (Elsie Fisher). Sylvia has fashioned her life in a way that gives her control over the things she can. Resisting the kind of clumsy exposition where people describe their backstory (which might have easily fit into that AA meeting), Franco prefers to reveal his characters through action. Sylvia works at an adult daycare center and keeps her social life to a minimum, compulsively setting the security alarm each time she enters her Brooklyn apartment. She’s hyper-vigilant about Sara’s behavior, forbidding the teenager to be around alcohol or boys.
Long before Sylvia explains her history of assault, her behavior says a lot about her own teenage experience. No wonder she’s creeped out when Saul follows her home from the reunion. But she’s also sharp enough to notice that something’s not quite right about this man, surely drawing on her training as a social worker. After Sylvia’s stalker spends the night on her stoop, she contacts his guardian, Isaac (Josh Lucas), and discovers Saul’s dementia.
Meanwhile, Sylvia’s sister (Merritt Wever) points out that the timing doesn’t line up: The girls transferred to a different school before Saul arrived, making it unlikely that he molested her. Strange that Sylvia’s memory sees it differently. What else might she be confused about? (Her estranged mother, played by ’70s cult icon Jessica Harper, accuses Sylvia of lying. But it’s just as likely that the older woman is in some kind of denial.)
So far, the film could be accused of being rather schematic — of setting up a situation where audiences must decide whether to believe the victim or to give the benefit of the doubt to the accused. Then the characters’ behavior steers “Memory” in an unexpected direction. Isaac asks Sylvia if she’d be willing to be a nurse to Saul, and she agrees. At this point, it’s not clear whether she sincerely intends to help or has some kind of revenge on her mind. Franco resists the reductive path, allowing these two lonely people to bond. Both are fussed over by family members with a tendency to infantilize them. Sylvia’s kid sister assumes the more responsible role, while Saul’s brother has conservator-like control over his charge. Later, we discover what happens when he’s left alone.
Still, Sylvia grows to feel genuinely comfortable around Saul, whom she finds less threatening than other men. Most surprising, she starts to trust her daughter around him. For anyone that remembers Franco’s 2012 feature debut, “After Lucia,” the film has strayed far from his usual territory — in a good way. Here, the director shows a generosity toward his characters and their fates that’s been largely lacking from his oeuvre, in which harsh twists of fate have a way of reminding how cruel the world can be. Not everyone will be comfortable with seeing Sylvia and Saul grow closer, however. “Memory” invites debate, rather than imposing a specific interpretation. It’s also a film that lingers, shifting and expanding in significance, even as the details start to blur.
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