Memory review: Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard are outstanding in Michel Franco’s newest provocation

Franco leaves several smoking guns to add to the ethical and narrative knottiness

    
Director: Michel Franco
Cert: 16
Genre: Drama
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Brooke Timber, Elsie Fisher, Josh Charles, Jessica Harper
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins

Watching a film by the Mexican provocateur Michel Franco can feel like catching a kid angling a magnifying glass over an ant hill. Misfortunes are heaped upon the young heroine of After Lucia, a repeated victim of sexual violations; death seems to follow Tim Roth’s self-involved protagonist in Sundown; a privileged wedding banquet is disrupted by a revolution in New Order.

As Memory opens we have cause to fear for Jessica Chastain’s Sylvia, a vulnerable recovering addict who is followed home after attending a high-school reunion. Her stalker is Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), who suffers from early-onset dementia. Sylvia believes he was one of several students who sexually harassed her at high school. The dates, however, are off.

It is the first of a web of unreliable or faded recollections: later, Sylvia’s sister Olivia recalls the abuse that her sibling endured as a child, a memory that unravels the fragile Sylvia. Revisiting the complex relationship between the carer and patient that Franco mined in his 2015 film Chronic, the heart of Memory is the bond between Sylvia and Saul, an arrangement that transitions from dependency to romance. It is a mismatched alliance: he is untethered from his memories; she is traumatised by hers.

Saul’s prickly adult son, Isaac (Josh Charles), and Sylvia’s toxic mother, Samantha (Jessica Harper), coalesce into a chorus of disapproval. Franco leaves several smoking guns to add to the ethical and narrative knottiness: Saul’s dead wife was, like Sylvia, a redhead. Might that be a factor in their attraction?


There are none of the action set pieces that enlivened New Order or Sundown. Yves Cape’s unfussy, still camerawork never distracts. Chastain and Sarsgaard subtly work every acting muscle. (The latter deservedly took home the Volpi Cup from Venice last September.) Franco is kinder to these characters than he has been to many of his creations, leaving the viewer to parse the moral murk.

Memory opens on Friday, February 23rd

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic