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“Memory” review

Memory, writer-director Michel Franco’s slippery dementia drama, is the kind of film that, initially, is so familiar and heavy-handed that your immediate impulse is to reject it. After all, it begins by capturing participants at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, photographed in oblique close-ups, each prolonging their memories with the phrase “I remember.” Before long, Franco’s gaze settles on Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), who is attending with her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber). Sylvia has been sober for twelve years, basically since her daughter was born. By virtue of being in this vulnerable space together, you get a sense of their closeness. But there’s more Sylvia hasn’t told Anna, such as why and how she became an alcoholic, that informs Franco’s interest in the ways trauma and disease can impact our sense of self.

Franco’s film unfurls with measured curiosity, beginning when Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) literally enters the picture. Sylvia is sitting alone at a table during her high school reunion. A crowd in the background listens to a rousing speech; framed between the streamers, just out of focus, is Saul. His blurry visage, akin to a fuzzy recollection, stares at Sylvia. He walks over, sits down, and smiles. Sylvia storms out without a word spoken between them. Saul literally follows her home and stands outside her window like a jilted ex-lover. Though it begins to pour, he stays—sleeping in the hole of a tire with a black garbage bag as his blanket. There is very little dialogue spoken during this sequence, leaving the audience to feel along the walls of the dark narrative box that Franco has constructed.

There are, of course, bumps and unique textures on the walls, primarily provided by Chastain and Sarsgaard, which also guide the viewer. As Sylvia, Chastain is knowingly rigid. She turns every lock on her door and diligently arms her home security system with the resoluteness of a warden. Though she works with her hands, assisting as a caregiver, around Saul, she doesn’t know what to do with them: She clasps, fidgets, and digs through her pockets. As Saul, Sarsgaard, with his loose walk and inquisitiveness, has an inviting presence. It’s perplexing then, why this seemingly amiable man would stalk Sylvia.

Franco’s plotting offers three successive gut punches: Saul has early on-set dementia, Sylvia was raped at the age of 12 by Saul’s friend Ben, and Sylvia believes Saul raped her too. While the first two statements are true, the third, comes under greater scrutiny. These are two people whose memories have been afflicted in different ways: One by disease and the other by time and trauma. Saul’s brother Isaac (Josh Charles) complicates matters by offering Sylvia a job looking after Saul. Their dynamic, beginning on uneasy terms, soon flourishes, becoming the most captivating component of a film that stretches itself thin.

Memory loses something when Franco steps away from Sylvia and Saul. Sylvia’s relationship with her daughter Anna, who wants the kind of freedom every teenager demands—the space to grow up—requires greater specificity: We’re just never sure of Anna’s likes and dislikes, aspirations or quirks. The same can be said of Sylvia’s extended family, the one belonging to her sister Olivia (Merritt Wever). Olivia’s children and husband are merely devices to pull further secrets from Sylvia. But their mechanics are so blatant, they almost disengage one from wanting to know more.

Franco loves teasing impenetrable characters, see his Mexican dystopian thriller “New Order” and his English-language meditation “Sundown” for reference. But here, his plotting gets flattened a tad by his overworked approach. We know, for instance, the longer he keeps Sylvia and her estranged mother (Jessica Harper) in different spaces, how deep their fissure must be. The script’s game of keepaway becomes a tedious job of probing. Franco, thankfully, situates their divide in real emotion. Once Sylvia and her mother do collide—in a gut-wrenching, cathartic argument that reveals the latent memories that have permanently fractured this family—you understand why the pair have remained separated for so long.

These gambits work because “Memory” isn’t a pure puzzle box. Told through a humanist lens, it never resorts to simple sentimentality. There have been plenty of films over the last five years about dementia (the good ones being “The Father” and “What They Had”). These works often take on characters in the latter stages of the disease, when the heartbreak is clear, and the toll is seen through the eyes of the affected family members. But Saul isn’t at that point yet. He still has agency, he still pines for love and carries regret. Saul’s dementia doesn’t pull focus toward the people around him; it centers how he is grasping his slipping reality. Thus, what arises are questions of capacity, of permission, and of autonomy. Can someone still fall in love, even if, day-by-day, they’re less and less like themselves? How do we respect the wishes of someone, who, one day, will not be capable of verbalizing their demands? What is the moment when one ceases to internalize their experiences?

Memory doesn’t necessarily have direct answers to those questions. But it does well enough to know that even if a person is damaged, whether emotionally or psychologically, that shouldn’t negate them from receiving the kind of support that doesn’t belittle them but treats them with a dignity that goes beyond their trauma.