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Memory ★★1/2

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No Thanks for the Memories


Early in “Memory,” Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) participates in an AA meeting, assists disabled adults at a care center, and triple locks the door of her apartment in a rundown New York City neighborhood. An apparent introvert, she reluctantly attends her younger sister’s high school reunion, and we see (but don’t hear what is being said) a man come up to her, a man she rebuffs as she leaves the reunion and is followed by him, somewhat creepily, though she doesn’t seem fearful. Mexican writer and director Michel Franco uses these opening scenes to create an aura of mystery around Sylvia, but the result is more perplexing than evocative.


Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) confronts a sleeping Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) outside her apartment. Since nothing is known about their relationship, Director Michel Franco seems to want the audience to assume there is some kind of mystery to be solved.


Later we learn the man is Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), who is in early-onset dementia. Shortly after that first meeting, he and Sylvia walk in Central Park, where she accuses him of raping her when she was 12 and he was 17. He tells her he has no memory of knowing her then. She rips off his identification tag and tells him he deserves dementia for what he did to her, abandoning him in the vast park. Only at that point is there a semblance of an understandable plot.

 

Franco, known for dramas of dysfunctional families, here uses these families to open up multiple layers of memory.

 

The memory at issue is not just Saul’s—and not even Saul’s and Sylvia’s—but also those of the characters surrounding them, Sylvia’s sister and their mother principal among them. Franco, known for dramas of dysfunctional families, here uses these families to open up multiple layers of memory. Everyone’s recollections are challenged. Does Sylvia really remember who raped her at 12? Was she even raped at 12? (Issues of reconstructed memory.) Is Saul’s lack of recollection dementia? Or a willful repression of teenage acts? (Shades of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.) Are the mother’s memories reasonable, or is she hiding something from herself and others?


The script relies too heavily on one confrontation of the dysfunctional family. From left, niece Anna (Brooke Timber), Tom Hammond as the brother in law who wants to hear and say nothing, Olivia (Merritt Wever), Sylvia (Chastain), Saul (Sarsgaard) and Sylvia and Olivia's mother, Samantha (Jessica Harper).


The closest the film has to a truth teller is Sylvia’s sister, Olivia, who at 8 witnessed indirectly some of her older sister’s trauma, and who takes it upon herself to investigate Sylvia’s claim about Saul. Olivia is portrayed by Merritt Wever, an interesting choice because in the TV series “Unbelievable,” Wever played one of two female detectives pursuing rape cases in which the victims were not taken seriously by male cops. Unfortunately, neither Olivia, nor the other secondary characters, who are essential to a complex exploration of memory, are adequately developed in Franco’s script. Sylvia’s—and Olivia’s—mother (Jessica Harper) is especially monolithic. Other good actors, including Elsie Fisher and Josh Charles, are wasted in one-dimensional roles.


Above, Saul (Sarsgaard) and Sylvia (Chastain) on that fateful park bench where she accuses him of raping her.

 

The performances of Chastain and Sarsgaard fail to produce the chemistry needed for a credible coupling.

 

The performances of Chastain and Sarsgaard, while they fail to produce the chemistry needed for a credible coupling, are worthy (he won the Best Actor award at the 2023 Venice Film Festival) and help Franco in his probe into memory. The subject too is an important one, especially in an era when we seem to be experiencing an epidemic of dementia and a questioning of memory of all kinds (Hillary Clinton and Benghazi, Donald Trump and 9/11, Brian Williams and the Iraq War, Joe Biden and the year his son Beau died).


“Memory” is yet another current film that delves into the human psyche, joining “The Beast,” “Inside Out 2,” “Hit Man,” and “Kinds of Kindness.” It has the potential to be complex and even profound, but falls short, betrayed by a script that fails to develop many of the characters and lacks direction and subtlety. The mystery of its opening scenes is dissipated in one truth-telling moment that claims to reveal the “truth.” Inevitably, “Memory” ends not with questions, but with answers.


 

Date: 2024

Director: Michel Franco

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Jessica Harper, Elsie Fisher, Josh Charles, Brooke Timber, Tom Hammond

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Other Awards: 2 wins and 3 other nominations

 

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