Michel Franco scores a home run with the vicious and intricate drama “Memory.” Hindsight is often the word we use when we try to refer to the learnings from any past experience. Naturally, hindsight brings back some painful memories – the pains which can last a lifetime. This pain gnaws at us, affecting our daily lives and how we view the people around us. It adversely impacts our current relationships, and moreover, such agonies skew our understanding of our lives, leaving us battling with paranoia. This existence of pain and the reality of hindsight, when not accepted by people, creates the ultimate cocktail of pain and isolation. Franco’s drama is all about this.
Jessica Chastain, as Sylvia, delivers a knockout performance as a distrustful mother of one. She is a recovering alcoholic, and she has been sober for thirteen years. She has four locks on her door, plus a number lock to prevent anyone from intruding and threatening the semblance of reality that she has been able to muster. Sylvia asks for a repairwoman rather than allow any man to enter this cocoon of safety. Everything is shattered when a man follows her home from her high school reunion. Peter Sarsgaard as Saul turns in the most non-threatening performance required for such a role. Saul has dementia.
Her rage and fear obscure Sylvia, and she thinks Saul is one of the abusers from the school football team who abused her after getting her drunk. She accuses him and leaves him in the park, saying he deserves what he is now. The amount of pain Sylvia, who works as a caregiver, holds onto and leaves a dementia patient in the middle of the woods is insurmountable. The incidents of abuse were vocalized in such a manner that profoundly shocks you. It moves you to tears, and this cry was of helplessness.
The tears come out of understanding the apathy women and men alike have felt when they have been abused. When Sylvia’s sister tells Sylvia that Saul was not even in that school while she was there, she feels embarrassed. She feels sorry for hurting somebody because of her abuse-filled childhood. Saul and Sylvia strike a friendship, which soon turns into a love affair. Franco creates this delicate relationship where Sylvia doesn’t feel threatened, maybe for the first time in her life. In fact, a man who doesn’t remember his past, someone who doesn’t, comes with a lot of baggage.
Sylvia’s wants and desires have never been met because every man will have some form of ulterior motive towards her. This is true in most of the relationships. Each and every person in a relationship is part of that relationship because a certain expectation is being met. We are selfish. The concept of an unconditional love is a myth. The aspect of give and take is what makes the relationship great. In this situation, Saul has nothing to offer but love. He has lost the most important thing of all. Saul only remembers how he loved his wife.
Three telling scenes in the film acknowledge Franco as a master of his craft. The first is the lovemaking scene between Sylvia and Saul. The scene is haunting. Sylvia gives in to her desires and puts her needs first in years. She is still traumatized by the abuse received at the hands of her ex-boyfriend. Her face is contorted in between horror, pain, and pleasure. The camera holds still. The reluctance in her body to give in to the pleasure yet hold back is painful to watch as an audience.
The second scene showcases the sensitivity and the sensibility of a man. It doesn’t matter what we remember, but basic human decency is innate. There is no replacement for it. Saul goes to the washroom and, while coming back, stands in front of two doors: one is that of Sylvia’s daughter’s room, and the other is hers. Franco could’ve created a minor subplot and conflict by making him enter the daughter’s room, but he doesn’t. His belief in humanity takes over. Saul just looks at the two doors and waits. He doesn’t enter either of the rooms.
This very small scene might seem insignificant, but it also foregrounds what is about to follow. Sylvia never wanted her daughter to be anywhere near her grandmother, who never believed her “stories” of abuse. So, when Anna, Sylvia’s daughter, comes in contact with her because she keeps spending her time at Sylvia’s sister’s place, she starts getting indoctrinated into believing that her mother is a liar. But one day, when Sylvia comes to pick her up, she sees that her mother is present. Chastain extraordinarily performs at this moment as she breaks down and reveals how her dad used to abuse her every night, and even her sister knew about it, except her mother refused to believe.
After so many years, the sister also backs Sylvia. One time, when she was little and tried to tell her mother, she slapped her. The refusal to accept keeps so many abusers hidden in plain sight. The mother’s inability to accept that her husband was a pedophile ruined the lives of so many people. In “Memory,” the uncomfortable truths are revealed in such a straightforward yet nuanced manner that the audience has no choice but to accept the characters’ role in this plague. This is a man-made plague, and Franco also uses the brilliance of his narrative that the “not-all-men” narrative doesn’t hold true. The narrative shows we should never trivialize the words of a victimized survivor.