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Jessica Chastain Unravels Dark Past in Michel Franco’s “Memory”

Jessica Chastain confronts a dark past when a classmate re-enters her life. Memory explores trauma, forgiveness & a glimmer of hope.
Memory (2023)

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Sylvia is a social worker who leads a simple and structured life marked by caring for her daughter and work. However, an unexpected event disrupts her routine: the encounter with Saul, a former high school classmate who follows her home after a dinner with old school friends and reawakens in her memories of a turbulent past.

Michel Franco’s cinema has always been grounded in the inscrutability of evil and pain. An invisible evil and pain, morally and visually indistinguishable from good or normality, scattered in a representation of life so realistic it verges on paroxysm. The coldness of the mise-en-scène, which relies on medium and wide static shots and close-ups of impassive faces, refuses to unleash the tensions of any plot—from the most violent (New Order) to the most impassive (April’s Daughter, Sundown) or ferocious (After Lucia)—and often falls into gratuitousness and cynicism, leaving the characters in despair and desolation with no way out.

Memory, the Mexican director’s second film in the United States after Chronic, confirms a now clear vision of cinema—we are in an anonymous New York, on the streets and in the apartments where the relationship between Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), a former alcoholic and victim of sexual abuse, and Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), a fifty-year-old widower suffering from senile dementia, is born—but significantly diverges from the past. What’s different is the hope that guides the protagonists, their love beyond trauma, illness, lies, pain.

As always, everything is locked in the images, in the carefully but flatly packaged presentation, hidden from the viewer’s eyes—who is asked for the patience to await the revelation of the trauma, beyond the silences, inexplicable behavior, and resistances—and from the characters themselves, expression of a society sick with repression and hypocrisy both in treating the disease with shame (as Saul’s brother, who cares for him by confining him at home) and in hiding evil by denying the evidence (as Sylvia’s mother, played by Jessica Harper, who accuses her daughter of having made up the episodes of violence she suffered).

Franco changes nothing about his cinema, as always cooling emotions in the exhausting visual and emotional balance of his stories. In Memory, played on the possibility of doubt or lie in the face of the fragility of memories, the uncertainty about the reasons of the two protagonists (Was Sylvia really abused or is she a mythomaniac? Was Saul really forgetful the night he followed Sylvia for a long time?) creates an atmosphere of mistrust that casts a shadow over the authenticity of the sentiment told, reducing to a minimum any possible form of empathy and participation.

Yet, despite this, thanks to the details of a plot that reveals its elements little by little (and also thanks to a cast in a state of grace), little by little the cynicism leads to a finally open view of life. The famous A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procul Harum, for example, which rhymes with the Air on the G String by Bach it’s inspired by, paves the way to Saul’s memories; the opposition between silence and word is for once resolved in favor of the latter, beyond the solipsistic confession of the support groups Sylvia participates in, thanks to a confession (by Olivia, Sylvia’s sister, played by Merritt Wever) that becomes decisive; finally, the presence of a young girl, Anna, Sylvia’s fifteen-year-old daughter, does not confirm as usual the moralistic condemnation of a world (as happened in After Lucia or Sundown, where the younger generations were worse than the old ones), but leads to an ending that is suspended and for once happy.

The world remains still in Michel Franco’s cinema, but for once, in Memory, within the fixed space of a frame, his characters have begun to move, perhaps to live.

Roberto Manassero

Cineforum, March 6, 2024. Translated by Chris Montanelli

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