Michel Franco, Memory

The Repression of Truth in Michel Franco’s ‘Memory’

Michel Franco’s Memory explores the premise of entrapment in the context of trauma and dementia and, in its repression of truth, builds to a chilling moment.

Michel Franco
Ketchup Entertainment
6 October 2023 (BFI London Film Festival)

Director Michel Franco’s Sundown (2021) is a noteworthy addition to the canon of existentialist cinema, unafraid to broach the reality that, at some point, the desire for what we want from life is meaningless. His latest film, Memory, reimagines this premise of entrapment in the context of trauma and dementia and builds to a chilling confrontation. 

The story follows Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), a social worker who maintains a rigorously structured life of work, looking after her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber), and attending AA meetings. Sylvia has a nervous energy and is hyper-aware of her surroundings. She locks her apartment door securely on entry and hesitantly allows a repair man in when she’d asked for a woman. The signs suggest a past trauma.

There’s an underlying tension between Sylvia and her sister, Olivia (Merritt Weaver), and brother-in-law, Robert (Tom Hammond). Meanwhile, her estranged mother, Samantha (Jessica Harper), describes Sylvia as a horrible liar. She also seems to want to force a relationship with her granddaughter. 

When Sylvia attends her high school reunion, Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), whom she doesn’t know, invades her personal space. Feeling uncomfortable, she leaves early. He follows her home, and when Sylvia awakes the next morning, Saul is lying outside, shivering and sodden from the rainstorm. Searching his pockets, she finds his I.D., contacts his family, and learns that he has dementia. 

Sylvia begins visiting Saul, and when his family asks her to look after him day-to-day, she’s reluctant at first, but then agrees to. Slowly, an unexpected romance between them begins to blossom, but their relationship incurs a confrontation with her family’s past, dragging an unspoken history into the open.

Memory opens on a support meeting with non-professional actors, where Sylvia emerges from the tightly framed close-ups of the participants. After the opening scene, the cinematography risks creating distance in contrast to the hand-held close-ups of the support group. The camera becomes an extension of Sylvia, who has erected emotional defences. The audience must understand Sylvia is a character who will share her vulnerability and then withdraw while she learns to trust.

“[This approach] might translate as cold, but I’m trying to give the audience room,” says Michel Franco during our remote conversation before the film’s release. “I’m not cornering [the viewer]; I’m not pushing [the audience] around to say this is how you should think or feel or that the music will convey the meaning of the scene.” Franco dislikes films that patronise the audience. Memory doesn’t convey a superiority. Instead, there’s a transfer of power from the director to his actors.

He elicits a quietness from Chastain and Sarsgaard. Throughout the story, they show restraint. This is deliberate, as this method gives Memory a noticeably different energy. It’s not dissimilar to Roth’s captivating, muted performance in Sundown. Here, Franco creates a space for the characters to live a less artificial experience inside the contrived story and compels the audience to become active participants. 

Michel Franco cuts sparingly, especially in the early scenes when the action revolves around the camera. This method allows the actors to create and control the pace and rhythm of the scenes instead of the camera and edit dictating. “It becomes very much about the present moment, and it’s less artificial,” says Franco.

This idea simplifies the dynamic between performances, cinematography, and editing. Fewer cuts and a less mobile camera cannot make a film seem less artificial. Scenes in other films with conventionally paced edits and camera movement are still grounded in the present moment. Michel Franco’s decision to elevate his actors’ energies is a stylistic choice that leans into theatrical staging. Indeed, Memory’s camera resembles the spectators’ eyes watching a staged production. 

This juxtaposition between the two leads feeds into a tension between the engagement of the audience’s critical and emotional mind. From the opening scene, the audience is aware of the film’s construction, yet Memory is a deeply emotional story. It’s difficult for the audience not to be drawn to the characters and the hope that comes with their romance. However, Memory may encourage sympathy and disconnection instead of empathy and connection. The film is both cold and warm, distant and intimate. 

Shortly after they meet, Sylvia and Saul take a stroll through the park. She accuses him of being one of the teenage boys in high school who were inappropriate with her, but Saul can’t remember his past. This is one of Memory’s most provocative scenes, which shows Michel Franco’s maturity as a writer. He leaves his audience lost, grappling with conflicted feelings by dividing their sympathy. 

The audience cannot deny that what Saul did to Sylvia in the past was cruel, but we’re uncomfortable with her recriminations given Saul’s current vulnerability. We’re thrust into a moral quandary, forced to interrogate the moral limitations on violence and abuse under exceptional circumstances. This scene emphasises the conflict between sympathy and empathy, disconnection and connection.

“At first, I thought I was writing a revenge story,” says Franco. “He [Saul] was going to be guilty of what he’s accused of, but because I was at a peaceful point in my life, I turned it into a love story.”

In the same way Saul’s forgetful innocence and his blossoming romance with Sylvia conceal this alternate angle, Memory never fully resonates as a love story. Instead, it’s overshadowed by its association with trauma and dementia and the uncertainty about whether Sylvia is a reliable narrator. By introducing her first, Michel Franco, whether intentionally or not, potentially provokes the audience’s unconscious bias that leads them to trust Sylvia. The emphasis, however, is less on her reliability as a narrator and more on memory’s unreliability and selective perception.

The story is a conversation about memory, its reliability, how it informs a person’s sense of identity, and how it’s both a blessing and a curse. Memory builds to a chilling confrontation that exposes the family’s denial and vindicates Sylvia, who has been branded a liar.

Michel Franco pulls no punches, showing the contradiction between how close the truth is to the surface and how deeply it can be repressed. The characters become an eerie metaphor for different forms of denial and repression, violence and abuse. Memory is an uncomfortable representation of how victims are bullied. Sylvia is a repeated victim of hostility, from her sister’s pitying love to her mother’s indignation. Robert is an intriguing character in this dynamic. His perception of Sylvia is based on what his wife Olivia and mother-in-law Samantha have told him. It appears that he has formed a biased and negative opinion of Sylvia, tolerating her for Olivia’s sake, which helps to characterise Sylvia as the family’s proverbial “black sheep”. 

Memory’s emotional restraint prevents it from being as dark or intense a story as it could otherwise be. Its understated nature is cause for concern that Franco is not entering into a heavier thematic conversation with his audience about trauma, dementia, and denial. His directing seems that of a reclusive introvert who rebuffs his audience’s desire for engagement, leaving them to think for themselves. 

Memory‘s understated nature has appeal, but it can feel a bit “off”, as if Michel Franco, Jessica Chastain, and Peter Sarsgaard are simply going through the motions and in so doing, pushing their audience away. This, however, may be a recognition of the isolating and personal experience of trauma and dementia that Memory is trying to communicate by stripping back the emphasis on drama and a more aggressive thematic conversation that could take place but never does.

Memory screened as a Special Presentation at the 67th BFI London Film Festival. It was released in the UK and Irish cinemas on 23rd February 2024, courtesy of Bohemia Media.