In “Memory,” a woman haunted by her past meets a man who is barely hanging on to his. It’s the setup for writer-director Michel Franco’s contrived drama starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, whose work in this artistic exploitation cinema is strong enough that you wish their characters would move on to an entirely different film .
Chastain plays Sylvia, a recovering alcoholic who works daily with disabled adults. She and her sweet teenage daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), have a spacious, sunny apartment in an industrial-looking building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. There is a tire store next door and several locks on their apartment door. Every time Sylvia returns home, she closes the locks and sets the alarm with great deliberation, a ritual that Franco demonstrates on several occasions. It’s a habit that, much like Sylvia’s wariness and physical reserve—she doesn’t make eye contact easily and tends to cross her arms in front of her chest—underscores her caution.
One evening, Sylvia and her sister, Olivia (the always welcome Merritt Wever), attend a high school reunion. There, Sylvia, visibly uncomfortable, withdraws into herself, but when a man – Sarsgaard as Saul – approaches her, she separates for reasons that only become painfully clear until later. He follows her onto the subway and to the front door of her building, where he stays even when it starts to rain. The next morning, Sylvia finds him shivering and almost incoherent, sitting on the ground in a spare tire. It turns out that Saul suffers from early-onset dementia and lives in his beautiful brownstone, watched over by his pragmatic brother, Isaac (Josh Charles), whose daughter, Sara (Elsie Fisher), comes and goes.
Soon, Sylvia begins caring for Saul part-time, a job that becomes intimate and then, unsurprisingly, romantic. The relationship is not articulated dramatically, unfortunately, despite the demonstrative tenderness and commitment that the actors bring to it, and the multiple logical gaps in the story do not help. It doesn’t make sense that Isaac, who presents himself as a fairly important professional, has no help when Sylvia arrives, especially given the family’s obvious economic resources. (I also seem to have missed the scene where he does a background check.) As Olivia’s husband and children, a collection of bland types, Isaac serves mainly as a convenient bourgeois prop for Franco to swing on before doing so. explode.
Chastain holds the screen reliably even if her performance often seems overly studied rather than lived-in, never more so than in her scenes with Sarsgaard, whose delicate, quicksilver expressiveness noticeably deepens both the film and its stakes. We don’t always believe in the Sylvia and Saul couple, but Sarsgaard makes us want to. Certainly, the two actors give you a reason to watch this film, which becomes all the more complicated and then mockingly crazy with the entrance of Sylvia’s ex-mother, Samantha (a vivacious Jessica Harper in the role of monstrous motherhood incarnate). Samantha, who has remained in contact with Olivia, is considering moving nearby, mainly, it seems, so that Franco can destroy Sylvia’s fragile serenity.
Franco, whose films include “After Lucia” and “Sundown,” likes to approach his angst-laden stories (of rape, abuse, murder) with relatively calculated composure and art-film trappings. It’s obvious from the start that Sylvia is deeply troubled, probably by her past. Although Franco sprinkles hints here and there, he also holds back the worst until a late, clumsily staged crisis filled with tears, screams, and ugly, unsurprising revelations. If up until this point, Sylvia has not fully addressed her pain – including at the AA meetings she attends – it is not because she is particularly silent. Rather, Franco saves his big reveal for maximum narrative punch: it’s the traumatic plot equivalent of the money shot.
Rated R for male nudity. Duration: 1h40. In theaters.