“‘Memory’ review: Jessica Chastain leads dark drama with a dash of hope”

Into the threads of sexual abuse, cognitive decline, family trauma and medical malpractice that are intertwined and woven together in Michel Franco’s “Memory,” the Mexican filmmaker has threaded his most shocking provocation yet: the spark of hope. Of course, this hope is neither dazzling nor unreal; It shocks with its normality, with an elegant and natural transition from Franco’s typically ruthless attitude. But what a time, what a world, what a strange affair – Michel Franco has created his version of a heartwarmer.

“Memory” wraps up the Venice Golden Lion competition before heading to Toronto and makes you work to win. It puts you in a difficult situation that is more in keeping with his dark filmography. Just look at the aforementioned narrative threads, which are just some of the darker elements brought to light and presented with the filmmaker’s predictable, blunt force.

It’s only when the end result is received with such surprising tenderness that it makes for a surprisingly balanced and user-friendly film – a darker and more formally sophisticated adult drama for Franco newcomers, and a bold departure for those already in love (or annoyed) with the film as a whole Director’s deal.

The phenomenally haunting Jessica Chastain plays Sylvia, a single mother, recovering addict and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. These three elements have shaped and almost completely determined her adult life, forcing her to live a strict and regimented lifestyle

For her, routine includes pre-work AA meetings at a care facility for adults with developmental disabilities, followed by a nighttime retreat to her triple-locked, alarmed citadel in Brooklyn. Still, Sylvia’s need to keep the world at arm’s length had the unintended effect of forcing her 13-year-old daughter out of the house, and young Sara (Elsie Fisher) often chose to spend the night with Sylvia’s sister Olivia ( Merritt Weaver).

Her daughter’s need for a safe haven has also led Sylvia to adopt a muted policy of détente with her sibling, in which much must remain unsaid on both sides in order for this negotiated peace to last. Like every other element in Sylvia’s life, the relationship hangs by a precarious thread. When Sylvia leaves for a class reunion and returns home with a silent shadow, things quickly start to unravel.

At first we can’t fully understand the scene. We see Sylvia sitting wordlessly and uncomfortably at their reunion. We see a gloomy, bearded man (played by Peter Sarsgaard) approaching them. She gets up to leave and he follows her (behind her with the steady and unwavering pace of the ghouls in David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows”) and moves a few steps behind her on the street, into the subway and to her front door. At a leisurely pace, Franco lingers in this strange mood, forcing us to question the subjective, objective or perhaps supernatural origins of this ghostly stalker.

It turns out the man is very real, very alive, and a phantom haunting his former life. This widower named Saul now suffers from dementia and lives under the care of his brother Isaac (Josh Charles), who has moved into and taken over Saul’s sprawling brownstone.

With clear lines, Franco’s deft script draws parallels between the two of them – these two wealthy children (although Sylvia is now struggling to pay rent), these two graduates of the same school, these two loners who are completely dependent on siblings. But the filmmaker leaves broader questions opaque.

Although we can’t fully explain their mutual attraction, neither can they. Initially, Sylvia recognizes Saul as the perpetrator of her childhood torments and confronts him with the full nature of his alleged crimes in an unflinching, unbroken perspective that reflects both Franco’s stern extremity and his two actors’ full commitment to the style.

But Franco is playing a different game here, a bait-and-switch game in which he exploits his reputation for severity to make more unexpected points. Once Sylvia is hired as a carer, the narrative develops into a provocative register about a victim having to work with her abuser in a very different way. Then the director pulls the rug out from under him and plays our expectations against us. In fact, “Memory” does this multiple times, turning our own memories of previous Franco works into unreliable compasses for this new path he is taking.

Like Franco’s 2015 film “Chronic,” the winding narrative soon finds a caregiver and his patient forming an intimate bond that transcends and subverts rigid medical ethics, tying itself in a Gordian knot of icky professional transgressions . And like the legend of the Gordian knot, “Memory” simply cuts through the problem with succinct efficiency, once again throwing aside expectations for a deeper – and deeply moving – third act in which two broken guys put themselves back together. Franco has assembled an unforgivable filmography of broken characters cut apart by a fractured world. With “Memory” he begins with this premise – and then asks with startling optimism: What comes next?

Jessica Chastain – George & Tammy

Brian Ashcraft

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