MEMORY (TIFF 2023) – Review by Liz Braun

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A woman who can’t forget the past and a man who can’t remember it are the main characters in writer-director Michel Franco’s new drama, Memory, a lean tale focused on the lasting effects of trauma.

We meet Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) at an AA meeting where she is being acknowledged for having achieved 13 years of sobriety. Sylvia’s adolescent daughter Anna (Brooke Timber) has come along to the meeting because it’s a celebration.

Later, Sylvia meets Anna after school and walks home with her, although Anna seems old enough to walk home alone.

It’s one of several signs that Sylvia lives on high alert: there are a lot of locks on the apartment door, for example, and Sylvia is unhappy when a repairman shows up to fix her fridge — instead of the repair woman she specifically requested.

When Sylvia reluctantly attends a high school reunion with her sister (Merritt Wever), she doesn’t mingle and she moves away at once when a man approaches and sits next to her. She leaves the reunion party. The man follows her home.

Sylvia recognizes that the man is dealing with some kind of cognitive impairment and contacts his family.

The man is Saul (Peter Sarsgaard). He went to the same high school as Sylvia and her sister did. Initially, Sylvia accuses Saul of being part of a group of boys who made her life hell when she was 12; she’s wrong about what she remembers, but it introduces some of the horror that she’s keeping at bay.

Saul has dementia. Despite their odd first encounter, Sylvia becomes one of Saul’s caretakers at the request of Saul’s brother. The relationship between two broken souls is what Memory investigates, and it’s not always easy to understand — or watch. There are devastating scenes between Sylvia and her estranged mother (Jessica Harper) about earlier childhood trauma and the unflinching camera means you may find yourself holding your breath during certain scenes.

At the same time, a growing relationship between Sylvia and Saul is a hopeful note. What distinguishes Memory are the performances from Chastain and Sarsgaard, both of whom are emotionally naked throughout and riveting here.

Sarsgaard won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, where Memory played before coming to TIFF.

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Liz Braun

Liz Braun has contributed entertainment stories in print and on radio and TV in Canada for 30 years. She served as film critic for the Toronto Sun and for the Postmedia chain of newspapers.