Writer-director Michel Franco isn’t known for his subtlety, particularly of late. His latest film, Memory, is of a piece with his past work, yet it also strives to present a normal workaday world filled with people just doing their best to live, come what may. In effect, Michel’s film is still severe, but that fits too. Because memory can be as small—or massive—as simply trying to remember or forget.
Memory opens with Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, which shades the film in a certain direction. Which direction is that? We know there is trauma to be explored here, the why and how to be revealed as the film winds in its other lead. That’s Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), a man suffering from dementia who lives only in fits and starts. He can remember his deceased wife though, which seems a cold comfort. There are other family members too—including Sylvia’s mediating sister (the underrated Merritt Wever), Saul’s impatient brother (Josh Charles), and more—filling in backstories that belie the film’s straightforward construction. There’s a second shoe to drop, and a third, and more after that. It’s not a spoiler to note that the two leads end up entangled romantically, but it is a surprise given how much else Franco fits into his narrative at the same time. When taken together, it’s a lot—I mean, what are the odds of all this in the lives of just two people?—yet the film remains tethered to its reality via its lead performances and Franco’s incisive direction. If nothing else, as heavy as the film is in its execution, that weight feels considered.
While Chastain carries off the showier role in Memory, it’s Sarsgaard who draws us in. His Saul is a man constantly finding and losing himself, disappearing into scenes and then trying to be present. If Franco isn’t subtle, he can see that quality in his actors and understand how to use it. That discovery leads to more, creating a strange yet simple alchemy that works.