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TIFF 2023 Review: Memory – “Quiet and tender”

Courtesy of TIFF

Back in 2020, covering the Toronto International Film Festival from home,  I watched a film that left me wide-eyed, mouth open, not believing what I was watching.  That film was called New Order, and in my review I called it “Unapologetically violent, blatantly graphic and unrelentingly bleak.” The fact that Michel Franco can make a movie like that, and then turn around to write and direct something as quiet and tender as Memory certainly speaks to his talent and breadth as a filmmaker.  

In Memory, the trauma our characters have faced is largely in the rearview, not on full violent display.  We meet Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) as she celebrates thirteen years of sobriety.  She lives with her teenage daughter Anna (Brooke Timber) in a small apartment, protected by a security system and many locks which she is sure to utilize each time she returns home.  

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Sylvia is close with her sister (Merritt Weaver) who encourages her to go to their high school reunion, but it’s clear that she doesn’t really want to be there.  When a figure emerges from the crowd to sit next to her she wordlessly gets up to leave.  However, that’s not the end of their encounter.  He quite creepily follows her home, even waiting outside her door overnight in the rain and cold.  Come morning, she finds out who he is.  His name is Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), and he may or may not be related to a trauma from her past.  He can’t help to know, as he is suffering from dementia.  Saul can’t remember, Sylvia can do nothing but.  

What follows will change them both as they get to know each other.  It’s an examination of how trauma shapes our memories, how time can blur the lines of identity, even identity of self.  It’s a slow but compassionate build where Franco keeps our characters largely at arms length, until they aren’t and the experience of leads Chastain and Sarsgaard take over.   

Sarsgaard is wonderful, and recently won the top acting prize out of the Venice Film Festival for his role but Chastain does more of the obvious emotional lifting here.  Sarsgaard is more nuanced and understated but no less effective.  Their characters’ coupling seems unlikely, but it works, and once it happens you can’t look away – the woman who would like to forget everything and the one who only wishes to remember are part of shaping each other’s future and calming the pain of their present. 

Memory can be slow in spots but Franco’s pacing is deliberate and the time we spend with Sylvia and Saul becomes as indelible a memory as any.  Yet, Franco doesn’t completely give up on his bleakness as a filmmaker.  For no matter the optimism that he might try to leave you with, that these two finding comfort in one another will help them to heal, the reality is that their burgeoning romance, after the final credits roll, will eventually be untenable as Saul’s illness progresses.  And that, which Franco leaves to the imagination, maybe the most heartbreaking thing of all.

Memory had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival but has its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival September 12th with further showtimes through the week.  For more information please go to

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