This review was originally posted during TIFF 2023
PLOT: After attending a high school reunion, a woman (Jessica Chastain) is followed home by a man (Peter Sarsgaard) with whom she has a history. Initially upset and thinking he’s a stalker, she learns that he has dementia and that if they have a history together, he can’t remember it.
REVIEW: Michel Franco is a director whose work has grown steadily in stature over the last few years. I became aware of him after watching his class warfare drama New Order in 2020 and then his dark 2021 Tim Roth drama, Sundown. Both of those films were grim, and one might assume Memory, which deals with early onset dementia, sexual assault, and alcoholism, might be the same. While heavy, Franco’s made a profoundly empathetic and unlikely love story brilliantly acted by stars Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard.
Chastain’s Sylvia is a victim of repeated sexual assault who is sober and lives a tightly controlled life in New York City. While coming from a wealthy family, she has no ties to her rich mother (Jessica Harper) and works in an adult daycare. Still, she remains close with her sister (Merrit Wever), whose family helps care for Sylvia’s teenage daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber). While she initially believes that Sarsgaard’s Saul was one of the men who raped her in high school, once she learns he’s innocent, she gets herself talked into being one of his caregivers. She begins to fall for the warm-hearted, intelligent Saul, even though his dementia makes him unable to remember much in the short term, and his long-term prospects are grim.
Chastain is terrific as the initially guarded but eventually passionate Sylvia, but Sarsgaard is a revelation as Saul. He subverts audience expectations at every turn, maintaining a dry sense of humour, even as his condition worsens. Memory really makes you empathize with him. Saul is still a handsome, virile, intelligent man, even if his well-meaning family, including his brother (Josh Charles) and niece (Elsie Fisher), treat him as a patient rather than a man with his own agency.
Despite his prognosis, Chastain and Sarsgaard’s chemistry is on point, with you rooting for them to find a way to be together. The entire cast is excellent, with Forlenza perfect as Chastain’s supportive daughter, who, while she loves her mom, also wants to be part of her well-to-do extended family. Merrit Wever and Jessica Harper (from Phantom of the Paradise) are incredible as her sibling and mother, both of whom deny her stories of sexual assault, with the latter becoming especially monstrous as the film goes on.
Yet, as grim as it sounds, Franco, who also wrote the film, keeps the movie well-paced and isn’t afraid to work in a little bittersweet comedy, such as Saul’s continued obsession with the Procol Harem song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which becomes a recurring motif. Parts of Memory are shattering, but it emerges as a surprisingly upbeat, hopeful look at two people who refuse to give into despair and make the most of the cards they were dealt. Along with The Holdovers, it’s one of the best things I’ve seen at TIFF this year.