TIFF 2023: Memory Review

One of the best of the fest.

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain star in Michel Franco’s quietly subdued character study, Memory. One of the highlights of TIFF 2023 and featuring dynamite performances from two veteran actors, Memory is a compassionate tale of two broken people longing for connection and stability.

We first meet Sylvia (Chastain) at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Thirteen years sober, we don’t get her story up front but there is an understanding that she’s been through the trenches of trauma and instability. A single mom to  13-year-old daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), Sylvia locks herself up in her New York apartment, interacting with her residents of the care home where she works and with her younger sister, Olivia (Merritt Wever). Olivia pushes Sylvia out of her comfort zone to attend a high school anniversary party, where she’s approached by Saul (Sarsgaard).

Clearly uncomfortable, Sylvia bolts out of the party, only to be followed home by Saul where he spends the night outside her apartment in the rain. Finding Saul semi-conscious in the morning, Sylvia calls the emergency contact that she finds in his wallet. From his protective brother, Isaac (Josh Charles), Sylvia learns that Saul has dementia. Later that week and still unsettled by her encounter with Saul, Sylvia pays him a visit to discuss a past incident from their teenage years. But as it turns out, Sylvia’s memory of the past is as flimsy as Saul’s. When she’s asked by his family to become his private caregiver during the day, she agrees. As the pair spends more time together, a gentle and tentative romance blossoms as they discover they have more in common and more to give one another than they expected.

Sarsgaard and Chastain’s on-screen partnership is delicately balanced, bringing both empathy and candour to their characters. Sarsgaard leans into Saul’s physical and emotional vulnerability when he finds himself in the grips of dementia. Refreshingly, the actor doesn’t play him as a victim of his circumstance. He flits between embarrassment over being confused and humour when he admits he’s bluffing his way through dinner, showing strength when he needs to. It is not surprising this quiet performance earned Sarsgaard the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival, likely the first of many accolades the actor will receive this year — Sarsgaard has long been an incredible talent with a keen eye for complex characters and is more than overdue for recognition.

Chastain, too, is good here as Sylvia. Franco lets her story unfold gracefully, teasing the idea that she has suffered in her past while neither deliberately spelling it out nor keeping it obscured in favour of a big dramatic reveal. Sylvia’s family dynamic is not addressed head-on for some time through the secondary plotline about her estranged relationship with her mother (a welcome return for Suspiria star Jessica Harper), with whom her father prevented her from having a relationship. Sylvia’s lack of trust in those around her only makes her relationship with Saul much sweeter.

Franco delicately teases out his characters in Memory, giving just the right amount of insight into their fractured lives. While the action occurs on the screen in his previous film New Order, Memory leaves viewers with characters living through the aftermath. Filmed in a minimalist style eschewing camera movement, Memory is a showcase for the actors. The film is devoid of a score and music, save for repeated instances of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” to which Saul has a deep connection. Franco keeps the camera and the audience at a distance, but the story still finds a connection, heightening the emotional beats of Memory. It is easy to imagine this story taking place on stage, assuredly ending with rapturous applause and a standing ovation.

Easily one of the best films of TIFF, Memory is one of the year’s must-sees.

Memory screened as part of TIFF 2023.
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