TIFF 2023 Review: A Simple Bond Grows From a Complex Set of Circumstances in Michel Franco’s Affecting “Memory”

Things can often make sense in a world that doesn’t in Michel Franco’s films, which is the only way to make heads or tails of the relationship that develops between Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) and Sal (Peter Sarsgaard) in “Memory,” introduced auspiciously at a high school reunion where he arrives at her table and she abruptly leaves. They both went to Woodbury High, but years apart, something Sylvia seems to remember distinctly but Sal cannot, having contracted dementia in recent years, yet may be blocked for other reasons. Still, he follows her home, ultimately sleeping outside without a word spoken between them and the adult day care nurse in Sylvia can’t help but try to help him find his way home upon finding him in the morning in spite of being terrified of him the night before. He needs her and increasingly she finds herself needing him, a feeling she can give into after her sister Olivia (Merritt Wever) concludes from looking at their old yearbooks that Sal wasn’t one of the boys in the neighborhood who molested her as a 12-year-old, a wound that clearly has not healed.

Yet in Franco’s tough but unusually tender romance, the fact that the two cannot share a history is part of the attraction as Sal approaches life with a gentility and a warm grin that no one else in Sylvia’s life can because of what they’ve lived through together. A testament to exquisite performances carrying off an unseemly premise, the film first finds Sylvia celebrating her 13th anniversary in Alcoholics Anonymous, roughly the same amount of years since having her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber), who she’s long brought to meetings with her. The two appear to have a relationship that’s healthy enough, though Olivia is prone to occasionally giving side-eye at how the two are attached to one another and it can be equally uncomfortable to know how Sylvia has been long estranged from their mother Samantha (Jessica Harper, in a particularly searing turn), who has only seen Anna in pictures. Appropriately enough, “Memory” unfolds at first in still frames where Sylvia is hemmed in by the corners of the screen, but as she starts to care for Sal, whose college-aged daughter Sarah (Elsie Fisher) asks for help looking out for him when she’s about to return to school and his brother Isaac (Josh Charles) has neither the interest nor the time, the camera begins to loosen up when their relationship starts to take off.

Under the chilliest of circumstances, Chastain and Sarsgaard are convincing in showing kindness to one another when few others will and while Sal would seem to be a burden upon walking into Sylvia’s life, it’s everything else that starts to appear as one following Olivia’s revelation that he isn’t who Sylvia initially thought. The same case could be made about Sal’s family, who appears concerned at first, but their actions suggest wanting to wash their hands of him and after films such as “New Order” and “Sundown,” where compassion can be a sign of weakness in a preordained social hierarchy that prizes conformity, Franco’s tale of outsiders who find common ground in an unexpected space becomes one of his most accessible dramas while staying true to his distinctive voice. It certainly boasts one of his most impressive ensembles, not only having a pair of riveting lead turns, but a coterie of supporting actors who can make the barbed reality the writer/director presents less pointed but plenty sharp, and when the heart and mind aren’t always complementary of one another, “Memory” becomes unshakeable upon finding where their most jagged edges can align.

“Memory” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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