MEMORY (Sydney FF 2024) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Somewhere early in Michel Franco’s Memory, there’s a conversation between Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) and Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) in a park that prompts that same, visceral “oh oh” response that those familiar with Franco’s previous films like New Order (2020) and Sundown (2021) will surely recognise. In those films, those moments mark a turning point that will inevitably lead to spiraling out of control of characters in certain unusual situations, the visceral dread established in these key moments something that Franco in the past has delighted playing with like a cat with a mouse.

But in Memory, that moment passes. It would be patronizing to describe this shift in Franco’s work as a maturation – if nothing else, it risks downplaying the power of his past brilliant, albeit divisive filmography. But Memory has bigger things on its mind that shock and awe. Chastain’s Sylvia is a single mother who works as a social worker and regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous to maintain her hard fought for, now years-long sobriety. She meets Saul at her high school reunion, a man she soon learns has early onset dementia and, as such, has no memory of his previous abuse of Sylvia. But memory is a strange beast, and as their stories begin to entwine, the complexity of both their pasts – and the possibility of a future together – become apparent, not only to them but to their respective families who have various conflicting responses.

Memory is a strong, emotionally compelling film that treats both its characters and its audience with enormous respect, allowing us the time to sit with these deeply complex characters and their journeys long enough to really reflect on both their specificity to their own story and the bigger picture. Franco asks big questions, not just about identity, memory and trauma, but demands we seriously consider questions like who gets to be loved? Who deserves loyalty? Who deserves respect?

In this light, Memory is a remarkably humane film that avoids any obvious missteps that would see it collapse into movie-of-the-week social issue melodrama terrain. While Chastain and Sarsgaard (the latter who quite rightly won Best Actor at Venice last year for the performance) largely carry the film, there is a particularly strong support cast that warrant acknowledgement; of particular note here is Jessica Harper who plays Sylvia’s mother in a performance that is surely a career highlight. Memory is a thoughtful, moving film whose power and potency lingers well after the end credits.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).