Via Ketchup Entertainment
Mexican writer-director Michel Franco is somewhat of a bad filmmaker. His style can be cold and serious. His characters are often innocuous bourgeois types who have few class-based opportunities. His usual method is to set up the camera at some distance from his characters and watch them perform tense, sustained squirms for long periods of time.
Sometimes everything goes haywire, as in Franco’s dystopian drama new orders, about a large-scale rebellion in Mexico City. Sometimes the nightmare takes hold more quietly, such as sunsetHis latest slow-burn thriller about holidays gone wrong.
I’ve not always been a fan of Franco’s work, not because I object to a pessimistic worldview in art, but because his shock tactics sometimes seem cheap and derivative, borrowed from other filmmakers. But his new English-language film, Memory, somewhat surprising. For starters, it’s interesting to see how well-known American actors like Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard approach his more distinct style of filmmaking. And while his touch is as clinical and gloomy as ever, there is also a sense of tenderness and even optimism that feels new in his work.
Chastain plays a single mother named Sylvia, who works at an adult daycare center. From the moment we meet her, at an AA meeting where people congratulate her on staying sober for many years, it’s clear that she’s been through a lot. She is extremely protective of her teenage daughter, rarely allowing her to hang out with other children, especially boys. Whenever she returns home to her Brooklyn apartment, she immediately locks the door behind her and sets the home security system. Even when Sylvia is not doing anything, we see the tension in her body, as if she is bracing herself against the next blow.
One night, while attending her high school reunion, Sylvia is approached by a man named Saul, played by Sarsgaard. He says nothing, but his silent caution unsettles Sylvia, especially when he follows her home and spends the night camping outside her apartment. The next morning, Sylvia learns more about Saul that may help explain his disturbing behavior: he has early dementia and suffers regular short-term memory loss.
Contains some backstory Memory Confusing by design. Sylvia remembers being sexually abused by a 17-year-old student named Ben when she was 12, and she initially accused Saul of abusing her as well. We soon learned that he couldn’t do that, because they were in school at different times. It appears that even Sylvia’s own memory, beset by personal trauma, is not entirely reliable.
Despite the awkwardness and tension of these initial encounters, Sylvia and Saul are clearly attracted to each other. Seeing how well Saul responds to Sylvia’s company, her family offers him a part-time job to take care of her during the day. As their relationship deepens, they realize how much they have in common. Both Sylvia and Saul feel ostracized. Both also have problems with their families; Saul’s brother, played by Josh Charles, treats him like a troublemaker and a child. And while Sylvia is close to her younger sister, played brilliantly by Merritt Weaver, she has been estranged for years from her mother, who refuses to believe her allegations of sexual abuse.
The film poignantly reveals that Sylvia and Saul are two very different people who, by chance, came into each other’s lives at exactly the right time. At the same time, the story comes uncomfortably close to romanticizing dementia, as if Saul’s friendly, non-threatening nervousness somehow made him the perfect lover.
But while I have some reservations about how the film addresses trauma and illness, this is a case where Franco’s restraint really works: There’s something admirable in how he navigates these characters through uncharted waters in real time. How it looks while trying to navigate in. Chastain and Sarsgaard are very dynamic here; It is touching to see how battle-hardened Sylvia reacts to Saul’s tender spirit, and how he relishes her patience and attention.
This is not the first time Franco has focused on the act of care; I was reminded more than once of his 2015 drama, long term, in which Tim Roth played a palliative care worker. I didn’t like that film either, but it had the same unsettling intimacy and emotional power Memory, It’s enough to inspire me to revisit some of Franco’s works with new appreciative eyes.