Michel Franco tackles multiple harrowing issues in this New York-set drama starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard


Source: Venice Film Festival


Dir. Michel Franco. Mexico/US. 2023. 100 mins. 

Mexican writer-director Michel Franco has never been known to make things easy for audiences – not in his more intimate psychological dramas such as 2015’s Chronic, nor in New Order, his depiction of modern Mexican society in apocalyptic combustion. So it’s no surprise that his new US-shot English-language drama Memory, while being his most prestigious feature to date, is also arguably his most harrowing. The story of a woman coming to terms with her past as she encounters a man losing contact with his, Memory is too severe for anything but committed audiences, although it may very well have awards-season impact by virtue of stars Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, both following their characters into psychologically shark-infested waters. The film is likely to find niche traction on the strength of their performances, but distributors should probably consider trigger warnings for certain narrative themes that are sobering by any standards.

Even for Franco’s admirers, who know how pitiless his narratives can be, Memory is likely to feel heavy going

An opening sequence shot largely in extreme close-ups introduces us to Sylvia (Chastain), a woman attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Because it is Sylvia’s anniversary session with the group, she is accompanied for the first time by her early-teens daughter Anna (Brooke Timber). Living alone with Anna in a modest New York apartment, and employed as a social worker at a care home for people with learning difficulties, Sylvia is a taciturn woman whose psychological scars are only too visible. She protects herself both emotionally - through a sometimes glassily unengaged demeanour - and concretely, with a panoply of security locks on her door. She also keeps a tight rein on Anna, who’s still just about placidly tolerating the fact that her mother won’t let her attend parties, let alone go on dates.

Persuaded to attend a reunion of her old high school class, Sylvia keeps herself at a distance – and makes a rapid exit when approached by a man who appears to be a former schoolmate. She’s troubled to find him following her onto the subway and all the way home, sleeping outside her flat through a rainy night. The man, we learn, is Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), who did indeed attend Sylvia’s school; now suffering from early onset dementia, he lives with his brother Isaac (Josh Charles), who is as controllingly protective of him as Sylvia is of Anna.

On a walk in Central Park, Sylvia confronts Saul point blank with a shocking accusation dating back to school days – with Saul impassively denying any knowledge of what she’s referring to. After the matter has been cleared up, Sylvia accepts Isaac’s suggestion that she should become Saul’s carer, and the pair find a new closeness. But other hidden truths surface to make an already charged situation even more electrically distressed.

The virtues of Chronic, and of Franco’s last film, the psychological thriller Sunset, were narrative compression and economy, and an ability to keep us guessing without nudging us too heavily. In Memory, where the tonal austerity is closer to Franco’s earlier Mexican dramas like 2016’s After Lucia, elliptical connotation soon gives way to on-the-nose overstatement. At the start, things are clipped and highly suggestive, as sparse dialogue and the use of fragmentary scenes (edited by Oscar Figueroa Jara and Franco himself) at once reel us in and keep us at a tantalising distance from the film’s underlying mysteries. Later, however, as Sylvia’s estranged mother Samantha (Jessica Harper) enters the picture, themes of denial and suppressed resentment come increasingly to the fore – then surface to awkwardly explicit effect in a culminating revelation scene, knowingly shot to suggest a stage drama, characters blocked in a highly composed proscenium-style configuration.

This resoundingly bleak story piles incident on incident, trauma on trauma, until it seems there’s nowhere left to go – at which point, Franco contrives an out-of-nowhere, not entirely explicable act on Saul’s part, moving things to a potentially redemptive conclusion.

Even for Franco’s admirers, who know how pitiless his narratives can be, Memory is likely to feel heavy going. But that’s because of a new directness to the narrative approach, one that ultimately skirts outright obviousness, making this resemble the kind of issue-based American indie movie that you wouldn’t normally expect of this director.

What Franco does have going for him, nevertheless, is a strong, natural-feeling cast, with Timber (Natasha Lyonne’s younger self in Russian Doll) making a lively, relaxed, affecting impression, and Merritt Wever (so notable in Marriage Story) offering keenly-tuned low-key support as Sylvia’s sister. Sarsgaard is characteristically impressive, his gentle performance holding onto its mysteries and maintaining a dry delicacy that eschews Hollywood demonstrativeness. As for Chastain, she holds for the most part to a tautly reined register that lets her intenser energies emerge all the more powerfully towards the end.

All this finesse can’t in the end prevent Memory being more of a melodrama than we’ve previously seen from Franco. Nevertheless, he shows characteristic boldness and expertise in working on the viewer’s nerves – and you should also be warned if you’re likely to crack on exposure to repeated plays of Procol Harum’s deathless ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.

Production companies: Teorema, High Frequency Entertainment

International sales: The Match Factory, info@matchfactory.de

Producers: Eréndira Núñez Larios, Michel Franco, Alex Orlovsky, Duncan Montgomery

Screenplay: Michel Franco

Cinematography: Yves Cape

Editing: Oscar Figueroa Jara, Michel Franco

Production design: Claudio Ramírez Castelli

Main cast: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Brooke Timber, Merritt Wever, Jessica Harper