Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard search for meaning in Memory
Personal, intimate dramas typically feature uncomplicated stories, ones that highlight the characters and their struggles and/or connections with few other distractions. Writer/director Michel Franco has challenged moviegoers with a more complex story in his new film, Memory, which may have viewers as emotionally mixed up as the lead characters.
Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) is a social worker who seems to live her life in a state of trepidation, rarely trusting anyone she doesn’t know and being overprotective of her daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber). She encounters Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) at a school reunion, a meeting that turns especially strange when, having not said a word to each other, she quickly leaves and he follows her home like a stalker.
Despite this inauspicious start, the two form a bond that puts Sylvia at odds with Saul’s brother, Isaac (Josh Charles) for reasons that will go unspoiled here. Concurrently, Sylvia has a strained relationship with her sister, Olivia (Merrit Wever), and a total estrangement with her mother, Samantha (Jessica Harper), with the roots of both stemming from her childhood.
Franco doles out the details of the lives of both Sylvia and Saul slowly, and consequently it’s more than a little difficult to understand what makes each person tick for much of the film. More important, given how Saul is introduced and a fierce confrontation between the two shortly thereafter, how they end up becoming an important part of each other’s lives is mystifying.
That confusion transfers over to the family life of both characters. Franco layers on a bunch of trauma for each of them, so much so that any one of them could have constituted its own movie. The fact that he tries to shoehorn in all of the storylines makes the film feel unfocused at best, overly manipulative at worst.
Then there’s the matter of the title, the meaning of which becomes clear as the film goes along. Suffice it to say that the idea of memory plays a key role in both of their lives, both in what they remember about their past and how they approach their current life. However, the combination of the two only serves to muddle any emotions that the film has built up, and neither story becomes as powerful as it might have on its own.
Even though they’re serving a story that misses the mark on multiple fronts, both Chastain and Sarsgaard give solid performances that are a reminder of the great actors they are. Wever proves once again what a criminally under-appreciated performer she is, giving her supporting role more depth than either of the two leads. Harper, Charles, and Elsie Fisher are good in smaller parts, but needed more screen time to fully stand out.
Memory is a film about two damaged souls who somehow find a sense of peace in each other, but that potentially touching story is undercut by a filmmaker who doesn’t know when to say when. If Franco had pared down the troubles of his characters, he might have wound up with a more compelling film.
Memory is now playing in select theaters in Dallas.