AFI Fest Film Review – ‘Memory’ is a Compelling Look at Life and Loss Featuring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard

AFI Fest Film Review – ‘Memory’ is a Compelling Look at Life and Loss Featuring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard

Losing the ability to make new memories and preserve old ones is a tragic fate that befalls many people. It can be especially difficult for the person suffering since they’re not necessarily aware of what they don’t remember, and others around them may be frustrated by their inability to hold on to moments while simultaneously mourning the transformation of a person they once knew into someone unrecognizable. Memory explores the complexity of that process through the interactions of two people who are both different people than they used to be, for distinctly separate reasons.

Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) leads a meticulous and careful life designed to protect her sobriety and shield her daughter Lucy (Alexis Rae Forlenza) from following in her footsteps. When she is followed home from a high school reunion event by a man she doesn’t know, she waits until the next morning to figure out who he is. As she gets to know Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), she initially believes that he was one of the older boys responsible for getting her into alcohol in the first place but then has considerably more compassion for the dementia-stricken, kind-hearted man who may not actually have been who she first thought he was.

This film’s title, which is shared by a 2022 Liam Neeson action thriller with a completely different premise, is an intriguing choice because it speaks both to Sylvia’s formative experiences that have shaped who she is and the way in which Saul isn’t able to make new memories as a result of his condition. Sylvia and Lucy enjoy an amicable mother-daughter relationship, while Saul gets along well with his niece Sara (Elsie Fisher) but has a pricklier dynamic with his brother Isaac (Josh Charles), who he feels treats him like a pet, inviting him to come along on a date rather than leave him home to take care of himself.

Memory premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, where Sarsgaard took home the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. His performance is indeed delicate and understated, featuring few problematic regressions where he gets himself into real trouble or makes a decision based on his limited knowledge of what’s going on that could put others in harm’s way. He reserves the harshest sentiments for Isaac, while he does have a gentleness that enables him to form a warm bond with Sylvia, who soon takes on a part-time job of looking after him during the day.

Chastain delivers a fierce and forceful turn that demonstrates the walls Sylvia has put up for herself, both literally with multiple locks on her apartment door and an alarm system and figuratively as she rarely lets anyone into her life. She comes at Saul after their first meeting with a ferocity that conveys just how much she’s had to fight to get people to believe her, and the lack of any relationship she has with her mother (Jessica Harper) speaks to that since she still considers Sylvia’s accusations about being a victim of sexual assault as a teenager to be invented.

Watching Chastain and Sarsgaard share the screen is a worthwhile exercise, and this film is certainly much more palatable and pleasant than one of writer-director Michel Franco’s previous films, the needlessly disturbing New Order. He’s confronting a subject matter with the appropriate caution and respect it deserves, and those who have seen similar progressions in friends and family matters to what both Sylvia and Saul go through will surely find their portrayals resonant. It’s not entirely clear where everything is set to end up, but this is one case where just sitting and being with these characters as they try to navigate and improve their lives is perfectly suitable.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Memory screens in the Special Screenings section at AFI Fest 2023 ahead of its December theatrical release.

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