Memory review – survivors grapple with an unstable past in a delicate, painful duet

<span>Exceptionally intelligent performances … Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain in Memory.</span><span>Photograph: Cinetic</span>
Exceptionally intelligent performances … Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain in Memory.Photograph: Cinetic

Mexican film-maker Michel Franco, famed for his icily contrived, pitilessly controlled dramas, often shown in static tableau scenes, has made another of his complex, painful and densely achieved movies; at Venice it won its leading man, Peter Sarsgaard, the Volpi cup for best actor. It is about abuse, violence, recovery and the redemptive power of sexual intimacy, but also about just what its title proclaims: memory, and how this accumulates over a lifetime to form an identity. Yet memory is unreliable building material; memory is the uncertain support underneath us, but solid as a crushing burden above us, a destructive gravitational force that could annihilate us entirely. And apart from anything else, memory is not necessarily the truth, so attempts to deny it are not necessarily dishonest or delusional.

This movie has the same piercing clarity as Franco’s other films, and two exceptionally intelligent leading performances, but with a warmer and more emollient outcome – so much so that you might wonder if the pill hasn’t been sugared, just slightly. Audiences might, moreover, be sufficiently vulgar (like me) as to wonder if there isn’t going to be a big third-act reveal. But Franco is entirely justified in aiming more for the non-narrative messiness of life itself.

Sylvia, played by Jessica Chastain, is a social worker and care worker, a single mother with a smart teen daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber). She is a recovering alcoholic and has been sober 13 years – as long as her daughter has been alive. We see her at the end of an AA meeting, and never hear her disclose her avowed reasons for being an alcoholic. Has she shared these with the group? We can’t tell. Her status as a care worker has a resonance with Franco’s previous film, Chronic, which shows the professional intensity of the worker’s relationship to the patient: a relationship almost erotic in its closeness.

Chastain plays Sylvia as someone displaying the tough self-reliance of a survivor, but highly strung, with an anger and pain that is only just being kept beneath the surface. Her home is in a tough part of Brooklyn in New York; she has a reasonably good relationship with her more comfortably-off sister, Olivia (Merritt Wever), but is utterly estranged from her overbearing mother, Samantha, a powerfully toxic performance from Jessica Harper.

Against her better judgment, Sylvia goes to her high school reunion, but almost immediately a very disturbing thing happens. A shambling figure called Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) comes wordlessly up to Sylvia with an odd, blank smile. She simply stands up and leaves and this man follows her home. It transpires that Saul is suffering from early onset dementia, living in his own house with his testy brother Isaac (Josh Charles) as his carer. Apologetic Isaac attributes this inappropriate behaviour entirely to Saul’s condition; but Sylvia remembers him from school and, having offered to look after him one afternoon, confronts him with what she remembers him and other boys doing to her.

Baffled, frightened Saul can’t remember it. But when Isaac offers Sylvia some very lucrative work caring for Saul – who seems, in his gentle, timid way, to have taken a shine to her – she accepts and their relationship appears to be a mysterious route out of her unhappiness. Yet this isn’t a kind of Night Porter horror story. The past is unstable and so is the present. Already we know that, like many people with dementia, Saul struggles to get to grips with the immediate past, but not the distant past. Could it be that Sylvia has the memory problem? At all events, their carer-patient relationship continues to develop.

A more conventional thriller might have stuck with the first premise, as disclosed in the original confrontation scene, and then developed something disturbing from there. But this isn’t Franco’s procedure. He wants to show something genuinely positive, without irony or distance, and tell a story in which Saul is aware of his own condition and aware of how he could get into serious trouble. When he sleeps over at Sylvia’s, Saul gets up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom; coming back, he can’t remember which door leads to Sylvia’s room and which to Anna’s. It is a moment of pure suspenseful fear. This is an absorbing story, acted with superlative delicacy and maturity by Chastain and Sarsgaard.

• Memory screened at the London film festival and is released on 23 February in UK and Irish cinemas.