‘Memory’ Review: Jessica Chastain Leads Bleak Drama With Dash of Hope

Venice 2023: Director Michel Franco’s latest proves more user-friendly than his previous work

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain
Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain in "Memory" (Teorema/High Frequency Entertainment/Screen Capital/MUBI/Case Study Films)

Within the strands of sexual abuse, cognitive decline, family trauma and medical malpractice that interweave and entangle in Michel Franco “Memory,” the Mexican filmmaker has threaded his most shocking provocation to date: the glimmer of hope. Of course, this hope is neither blinding nor unreal; it shocks by way of normalcy, by an elegant and natural flow from Franco’s typically unsparing outlook. But what a time, what a world, what a strange affair — Michel Franco has made his version of a heartwarmer.

Closing out the Venice Golden Lion competition before hitting Toronto, “Memory” makes you work for the payoff. It puts you through a wringer that feels more of a piece with his somber filmography. Just look at those aforementioned narrative strands, which are just some of the darker elements unearthed and presented with the filmmaker’s predictable blunt force.

Only, once met with such surprise tenderness, the final result makes for a surprisingly balanced and user-friendly film – a bleaker and more formally exacting adult drama for Franco neophytes, and a bold departure for those already enamored with (or annoyed by) the director’s whole deal.

A phenomenally haunting Jessica Chastain stars as Sylvia, a single mom, recovering addict and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Those three elements have informed and nearly fully defined her adult life, pushing her into a stern and regimented lifestyle

Hers is a routine of AA meetings before work at a care facility for adults with developmental disabilities, followed by a nightly retreat to her triple-locked and alarm-fortified Brooklyn citadel. Still, Sylvia’s need to keep the world at bay has had the unintended effect of pushing her 13-year-old daughter out of the home, with young Anna (Brooke Timber) more often than not opting to spend the night with Sylvia’s sister, Olivia (Merritt Weaver).

Her daughter’s need for safe harbor has also pushed Sylvia into a muted détente with her sibling, where much must remain unspoken – on both sides – in order for this negotiated peace to last. Like every other element of Sylvia’s scrounged life, the relationship hangs on a precarious thread. So, once Sylvia leaves for a high-school reunion and returns home with a silent shadow, things quickly fall to pieces.

At first, we cannot quite figure out the scene. We see Sylvia sitting, unspeaking and uncomfortable, at her reunion. We see a somber, bearded man (played by Peter Sarsgaard) make his way towards her. She gets up to leave and he follows (trailing her with the steady and unwavering pace of the ghouls in David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows”), moving a few paces behind on the street, into the subway and all the way to her front door. With an unhurried pace, Franco lingers in this strange register, forcing us to question the subjective, objective or perhaps supernatural provenance of this ghost-like stalker.

Turns out, the man is very much real, very much alive and very much a phantom haunting his previous life. This widower named Saul now suffers from dementia and now lives under the conservatorship of his brother, Isaac (Josh Charles), who has moved into and taken over Saul’s spacious brownstone.

With clean lines, Franco’s deft screenplay draws parallels between the pair – these two children of affluence (though Sylvia is now struggling to make rent), these two alumni of the same school, these two loners, fully reliant on siblings. But the filmmaker leaves wider questions opaque.

Though we cannot fully explain their shared pull, neither can they. At first, Sylvia recognizes Saul as a perpetrator of her childhood torments, confronting him with the full nature of his supposed crimes in an unflinching, unbroken take that reflects both Franco’s brand of austere extremity, and his two actors’ full commitment to that style.

But Franco is playing a different game here, a game of bait-and-switch that plays on his reputation for severity in order to hit more unexpected notes. Once Sylvia finds herself hired as a caretaker, the narrative moves towards a provocative register following a victim having to engage with her abuser in a much different way. Then the director pulls the rug, playing our expectations against us. Indeed, “Memory” does this several times over, turning our own memories of prior Franco works into unreliable compasses for this new path he’s forging.

As in Franco’s 2015 film “Chronic,” the winding narrative soon finds a caretaker and their patient forming an intimate bond that transcends and subverts rigid medical ethics, tying themselves into a Gordian knot of icky professional line-crossing. And as in the very legend of the Gordian knot, “Memory” simply cuts through the problem with clipped efficiency, once more shedding prior expectation for a deeper — and deeply moving — third act that finds two broken sorts piecing themselves together again. Franco has put together an unforgiven filmography of broken characters cut by a jagged world. With “Memory,” he begins with that premise — then with startling optimism, asks: What comes next?