I’ve always defended Michel Franco, not that he requires further support from numerous areas of the industry. But he’s been something of a critical punching bag and dartboard target since his rise to relative acclaim, his festival placements and jury awards not translating to similarly good ink, or unignorable theatrical exposure. An important factor is the hangover from Haneke’s reign as the most influential Euro-festival auteur and attendant backlash that arose towards his punitive sensibility, especially those that imitated it. Franco, who first developed his career in the Mexican arthouse world, does indeed initiate a certain type of pain, but also much empathy.
Akin to Östlund, and especially Lanthimos, Franco has begun naturally integrating himself into a transnational mode, skipping between production scales and national tongues at ease. And Jessica Chastain, having now shot a second feature with him (under a SAG-AFTRA waiver), is threatening to become his Emma Stone. Memory, which premiered at the end of Venice and now comes to Toronto, is a real powerhouse auteur-star collaboration of time-honored precedent. One thinks of Bergman and Rossellini, or recently Verhoeven and Huppert: the screen presence and all-encompassing, focused skill of Chastain’s acting further consolidates the power and pathos Franco usually exerts.
Still, flaws abound––especially at script level, where Franco takes sole credit. An element apparent in his Sundown and April’s Daughter comes to the fore where you can dismiss what unfolds as preposterous and over-plotted, yet his skills as a dramatist––overall directorial control, the pertinence of the themes (trauma, bourgeois familial conflict, illness) explored––keep you watching, also eager to see what further taut, ingratiating work he might compose in his still-young career.
Memory hands Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard (deserved winner of the Venice competition’s acting prize) gifts of roles, in a love story whose exact contours it’s tempting to keep concealed. Franco definitely operates with the element of surprise, having tricked viewers sitting down to (for instance) Sundown of his attractive leads Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s exact relationship. Chastain plays Sylvia, who works as a social worker––she bluntly puts it herself: she’s employed at an “adult daycare center”––somewhere in an outer New York borough. She keeps an ascetic, spartan life with her beloved daughter Anna (Brooke Timber), always avoiding unnecessary social contact whilst aggressively monitoring her movements. More is revealed, but Sylvia’s past as a severe alcoholic, in light of which she dedicatedly attends AA meetings (shown in the opening scene, with non-professionals filling out background roles), clearly determines current life choices.
This well-realized residential NYC world is also a small one: together with her younger sister Olivia (the great Merritt Wever), Sylvia reluctantly attends her own high-school reunion, where Saul (Sarsgaard), another former student, recognizes her, and not knowing how to properly make contact, stalks her home from the event, onto the subway, and back to her front door.
Saul is suffering from a kind of mental illness doesn’t actually make him an overt danger to others. But their chance interaction is the inciting incident for Sylvia to confront and unveil deeper-seated issues than her alcoholism, which extend to abuse within her immediate family, and also to re-examine her attitude towards love and intimacy––especially if it might take on an immediately transactional nature. At 100 minutes, it feels like a longer, O’Neill- or Strindberg-esque melodrama compressed and overly hemmed-in, so its revelations (which feel more like twists) come at an absurdly rapid rate, the script always awkwardly recalibrating itself towards an endpoint in light of each turn of the screw.
But Chastain and Sarsgaard––ably supported by Josh Charles, Jessica Harper, and Elsie Fisher across the ensemble––are just fantastic, and find an ideal emotional register for Franco’s dramatic somersaults. They say film direction is “tone management”; Memory is evidence, not that it’s needed, of actors’ particular contribution to this. Painful as it is, it’s a film people should make time for: insightful about what makes us tick, falter, and regain our strength.
Memory screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.