TIFF 2023 | Memory (Michel Franco, US/Mexico) — Special Presentations

By Angelo Muredda

Volpi Cup winner Peter Sarsgaard comes down with a serious case of movie dementia, the romantic kind that makes you look more rakish in a blazer and scarf the sicker you get, in Michel Franco’s Memory. Though ostensibly a kinder Franco than the one who made After Lucia and New Order, the Bressonian realist with the delicacy of a sledgehammer still shows his face in the film’s miserablist two-hander plot, which pairs recovering alcoholic adult home caregiver and child sexual assault survivor Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) with recently diagnosed dementia patient Saul (Sarsgaard) in an alignment of the broken hearts. 

The lovebirds’ meet cute is, in Franco fashion, obscene, with Saul stalking the understandably skittish Sylvia at her high school reunion, following her home like Michael Myers across several subway trains and then sleeping in a discarded tire outside her window. When she takes pity on him in his obvious distress the morning after, Sylvia learns that Saul is in need of a daytime nurse, which she agrees to become after exonerating him from the high school sexual assault to which she initially connected him. Before long, she’s letting down her defences and both figuratively and literally unlocking her bolt-fastened door to a man who needs post-it notes to remind him not to wander past it.

Chastain and Sarsgaard skillfully navigate Franco’s awkward lurches from kitchen sink realism to tearjerker, even if the latter is playing a phoney facsimile of a dementia patient — a nice, forgetful guy whose symptoms shift, disappear, and resurface entirely according to narrative convenience. Chastain thrives in her tentative first interactions with Saul and her clients at the care home, grounding a characterization that doesn’t make much sense on paper: what kind of a survivor goes to her high school reunion, anyway? Jessica Harper lives it up as Sylvia’s mother, the film’s vision of evil incarnate, an aloof high society fundraiser who either never believed her daughter about what was going on at school or in her own home or deliberately looked away, now sinking her talons into her estranged granddaughter (Elsie Fisher). But for all their good work, and for all his own efforts to temper his worldview, even a gentler Franco is a contrived one. The film only really works moment to moment as a romantic melodrama, its characters’ unconvincing psychologies and behaviours collapsing under the faintest scrutiny.