“Why did you follow me home from the party?”
Memory is a real New York movie. It’s real in the sense that it doesn’t opt for shooting around the typical landmarks that other titles have used to show their love for the city. Instead, the film takes place in various streets and locales that, despite not being recognizable to the average non-New Yorker, feel inherently and incredibly New York. Even in the rare instances when Memory decides to use a recognizable area, the focus of the scene remains on the people on the screen, showing the film to be one more story in the millions that can be found within the city. The lack of typical Big Apple scenery may be missed by some, but in its place comes a story full of the kind of hidden intimacy that most would be surprised by in a landscape such as New York.
Written and directed by Michel Franco, Memory stars Jessica Chastain as Sylvia, a longtime recovering alcoholic who leads a very closed-off existence that stems from the sexual abuse she suffered at a young age. Through happenstance, she meets Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), a man in his early 50s who is battling early-onset dementia. Eventually, Sylvia becomes his caregiver and the two form an unexpected bond that helps them deal with the outside world.
The most fascinating aspect of Franco’s film is the use of memory itself. We see it play out in two characters that are very broken in completely different ways. Sylvia is a broken woman endlessly trying to rebound, while Saul is trying not to break away altogether by holding onto as much of himself as possible. The way the film uses the device of memory in both its central characters in completely different ways is what ends up bringing them onto the same level of understanding. Sylvia has lived her life defined by the fact that she remembers the awful acts that were done to her. The imprint those memories have left on her has dictated the fractured existence she has led up until now. Meanwhile, the film uses memory about Saul by showing him struggling to hold onto the act of being able to simply remember. What Memory does best is link these two characters together through unexpected means and give them a kind of hope neither one expected to get at this particular stage of their lives.
Memory allows us to bear witness to the long-term ramifications of abuse through Sylvia and the long-awaited chance she gets to face the past. There’s great strength in the choices the character makes, all of which are filled with ownership and a rising above what came before rather than choosing to be held captive by it. Despite the forging ahead, there’s still a struggle inside holding her back. It’s a struggle that’s echoed in Saul, himself trying to be an active participant in his life, despite what his condition is doing to him. Franco surprises us with the way he shows both characters living with their situations every day. Sylvia flinches when a 15-year-old server tries to refill her water glass in one scene, while at a later moment sees Saul talking about his late wife’s favorite musical instrument before going silent mid-thought when he can’t remember anything else. Whether it’s the fight to embrace the outside world for her or stay an independent individual for him, the common ground both ultimately share is that neither one knows who they are without the memories they’ve each had.
Franco can take credit for two of the best performances of the year. The film has already garnered Sarsgaard the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and Chastain has netted herself a nomination at the Spirit Awards. Such praise is well-deserved due to the stirring levels of heartbreak and humanity the two give their respective characters. Their first initial big scene in the park is stunning because of the way both actors find new and exciting places to go while bouncing off of each other so effectively. They’re aided by some recognizable faces who are also doing incredible work, including Elsie Fisher, Merritt Weaver, Josh Charles, and Jessica Harper, as Sylvia and Saul’s various family members.
Since the poster alludes to this, I feel safe in revealing that eventually, a romance develops between Saul and Sylvia. Part of this romance does feel contrived even though everything leading up to it feels like a natural progression of their relationship. Still, because of their respective conditions, neither comes across as someone ready to be as intimate as these two eventually become. Regardless it’s easy to see why they both want to be physical with each other. Deep down they want to prove to themselves that they’re still capable of intimacy on that kind of physical level. When the script isn’t focused on the physical, it works. Memory works best overall when it focuses on two people, who despite past traumatic events, can see each other in a way no one else in their lives has been able to.