Strangers discover a surprising connection in Michel Franco’s film: NPR

Jessica Chastain plays a single mother who deals with a man with early-onset dementia (Peter Sarsgaard) in Memory.

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Jessica Chastain plays a single mother who deals with a man with early-onset dementia (Peter Sarsgaard) in Memory.

via Ketchup Entertainment

Mexican writer-director Michel Franco is something of a bad director. His style can be cold and stern. His characters are often comfortable bourgeois who face some kind of class retribution. His usual method is to set the camera at a distance from the characters and watch them writhe in intense, continuous long takes.

Sometimes all hell breaks loose, as in Franco’s dystopian drama. New order, about a mass uprising in Mexico City. Sometimes the nightmare is quieter, like in sunsethis recent slow-burn thriller about a vacation gone wrong.

I haven’t always been a fan of Franco’s work, not because I object to the pessimistic worldviews in art, but because his shock tactics sometimes seemed cheap and derivative, borrowed from other filmmakers. But his new English-language film, Memory, it’s something of a surprise. Firstly, it’s interesting to see how famous American actors like Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard adapt to their more detailed style of filmmaking. And although his touch is, as always, impartial and gloomy, there is a sense of tenderness and even optimism in his work.

Chastain plays Sylvia, a single mother who works at an adult day care center. From the moment we meet her at an AA meeting where people are congratulating her on her many years of sobriety, it is clear that she has been through a lot. She is intensely protective of her teenage daughter, rarely letting her hang out with other kids, especially boys. Whenever she returns home to her Brooklyn apartment, she immediately locks the door behind her and turns on her home security system. Even when Sylvia is not doing anything, we see the tension in her body, as if she is preparing for the next blow.

One night, while Sylvia was attending a high school reunion, she was approached by a man named Saul, played by Sarsgaard. He doesn’t say anything, but his silent attentiveness unnerves Sylvia, especially when he follows her home and spends the night at a campground near her apartment. The next morning, Sylvia learns more about Saul, which may help explain his disturbing behavior: he has early-onset dementia and regular short-term memory loss.

A little background on Memory confusing by design. Sylvia remembers being sexually abused by a 17-year-old student named Ben when she was 12, and initially accuses Saul of abusing her too. We soon found out that he couldn’t do it because they were at school at different times. It would seem that Sylvia’s own memory, clouded by personal pain, is also not entirely reliable.

Despite the awkwardness and tension of these first meetings, Sylvia and Saul are clearly attracted to each other. Seeing how well Saul responds to Sylvia’s company, his family offers her a part-time job looking after him during the day. As their connection deepens, they realize how much they have in common. Both Sylvia and Saul feel like outcasts. Both also have problems with their families; Saul’s brother, played by Josh Charles, treats him like a nuisance and a child. And although Sylvia is close to her younger sister, played beautifully by Merritt Wever, she has been estranged for years from her mother, who refuses to believe her accusations of sexual abuse.

The film poignantly shows that Sylvia and Saul are two completely different people who accidentally walked into each other’s lives at the right moment. At the same time, the story comes very close to romanticizing dementia, as if Saul’s friendly, harmless, confused vibe somehow made him the perfect guy.

But while I have some reservations about the film’s handling of injury and illness, this is one instance where Franco’s restraint really works: There’s something transcendent about even the way he watches these characters try to navigate uncharted waters in real time. Chastain and Sarsgaard are very moving here; It’s touching to see how the battle-hardened Sylvia reacts to Saul’s gentle spirit and how he is warmed by her patience and attention.

This isn’t the first time Franco has focused on grooming; more than once I was reminded of his drama in 2015, Chronicle, in which Tim Roth played a palliative care worker. I didn’t like this movie either, but it had the same unsettling intimacy and emotional power as Memory. It’s enough to make me want to return to some of Franco’s work with new, appreciative eyes.

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