Review: ‘Memory’ Slowly Seeks Its Way into Your Mind and Heart with Performances Worth Appreciating

Michel Franco’s film is already out in cinemas.

Stories of trauma are hauntingly told in Memento, now in theaters, where pieces of hard-won hope revolve around a world of pain.

Starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard in lead roles worth cherishing, Memento slowly works its way into your mind and heart.

Remember the Beatles’ lyric about “all the lonely people / where did they all come from?” Here’s one hypnotic response from Mexican writer and director Michel Franco, whose films like After Lucia, Chronicle and Sunset are more likely to gut than console.

Chastain plays Sylvia, a trained social worker who currently works in an adult day care center. She’s also a recovering alcoholic and has been sober for 13 years, about the same age as her overprotective daughter Anna (Brooke Timber). Check out the double locks on their Brooklyn apartment door. Wary Sylvia, who was sexually abused as a child, is all about control.

Sylvia is then dragged to her sister’s high school reunion and notices a man staring at her as he follows her house and sets up camp outside her apartment. This is Saul, played by Sarsgaard in an acting masterclass that won the top acting award at the Venice Film Festival.

Sylvia quickly realizes that Saul has mental problems, which is confirmed when she becomes involved with his brother Isaac (Josh Charles).

It turns out that Saul suffers from early onset dementia, which causes him to become confused and unconscious. It is then that Isaac, Saul’s guardian, offers Sylvia a part-time job as his caretaker. She agrees, but with secret intentions that are eventually revealed.

And then, bam! On a walk in the park, Sylvia accuses Saul of being one of the boys who molested her as a child. It’s only her sister Olivia (the great Merritt Wever) who tells her that their school years don’t match up, showing how we can distort our own memories.

It is in this thicket of distorted memories that Franco immerses viewers, urging them to peer into every look and gesture, in search of clues to who and what to believe. Franco’s script may be dark and frustratingly elusive, but we’re hanging in there.

Everything explodes when Sylvia confronts her estranged mother Samantha (Jessica Harper, mesmerizing as the monster), turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by her father, prompting Olivia to finally reveal that she, too, witnessed these crimes. This revelation is devastating, but ultimately sets Sylvia on the path to healing.

How can such emotional chaos develop into a romance that angers Saul’s brother and confuses Sylvia’s daughter? Just watch how Franco sensitively and skillfully orchestrates this connection. It begins with Sylvia and Saul falling asleep on the sofa while watching a movie that Saul, amused by his own memory disorder, knows he will forget even as he watches it.

Later, when Saul and Sylvia are sleeping together in her bed, he gets up to go to the bathroom and then forgets which bedroom door is Sylvia’s, fearing that he might open Anna’s door instead. So he remains in the hallway, not knowing where to call home. Sarsgaard crafts his portrayal with heartbreaking tenderness.

Is there a happy ending for these two star-crossed lovers? At best, Franco can only express tentative optimism. In this impossible love story between a woman who cannot forget and a man who cannot remember, eternity is sadly out of reach.

Yet Chastain and Sarsgaard find compassion in the simple act of trying. You will be moved to tears.

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