MEMORY. This film embeds itself in the mind and gets under the skin [REVIEW]

“Memory” is at times an outright thrilling film, expertly seducing the viewer with subtexts and a suitable mixture of escalation and deceleration.

Tomasz Raczkowski

24 March 2024

In contemporary cinema, there aren’t many creators like Michel Franco. On one hand, the Mexican filmmaker features Hollywood stars, while on the other, his films carry strong artistic concepts. Somewhere between mainstream and festival avant-garde, Franco has carved out his own distinctive slice of cinema, which he consistently adheres to—with varying degrees of success. In a sense, each premiere signed by Franco, like “April’s Daughters,” is a lottery where you might draw a fascinating piece (such as “Chronic”) or an exaggerated mess (“New Order”), and sometimes both at once (“Sundown”). So, when sitting in the theater for the premiere of Franco’s latest work, “Memory,” which premiered at Venice, one can expect practically anything.

Before I answer the question of what Michel Franco has drawn in his latest film, let’s delve into what exactly we’re talking about. As is often the case with Franco, we are immediately thrown into a intimate, subtly charged situation of the protagonist. We meet Sylvia at an AA meeting, and then accompany her on a brief introductory journey through her life—from working at a center for the disabled, through her better-off sister’s salon, to her heavily fortified apartment, where she lives with her daughter. It’s evident that the magnitude of their problems is quite significant, and the stakes will only rise when the other protagonist of this story, Saul, enters the scene—a stranger who inexplicably begins to follow Sylvia at a school reunion.


Here, I step onto precarious reviewer territory—there isn’t much to say about Saul without spoiling one of the series of twists prepared by Franco in “Memory.” Let’s stay at a more general level and say that the mysterious man turns out to be equally, if not more, complex than Sylvia. The core of the film is the ambiguous and twist-filled relationship between these two, which, contrary to logic, seems connected by an invisible thread. She remembers more than she would like, while he remembers too little. Was it chance that brought them together, or a shared past? What do they see in each other? What role does Sylvia’s mother play in the story? Franco delights in multiplying ambiguities and potential interpretive clues, offering only fragments of explanations. This isn’t without reason— “Memory” fundamentally tells the story of grappling with the baggage of the past, both the one casting a shadow on the present day and the one smearing and disintegrating under the influence of factors beyond our control. The two characters function here as a binary pair of contrasting experiences and trajectories, and their encounter is a veritable collision of individual obsessions, traumas, and neuroses.

Michel Franco knows how to present this story in an exciting narrative manner. From the very beginning, “Memory” stands out with its dense atmosphere, laden with unspoken wounds and conflicts, where each subsequent situation carries the danger of triggering something ominous. Creating and sustaining such tension is equally the achievement of the main acting duo. Jessica Chastain employs a relatively small range of means, but achieves great things with them. Sylvia’s nerves are visible but not ostentatious, subtly signaling within the portrait of a woman trying to tread firmly on the ground after going through hardships. Peter Sarsgaard, opposite Chastain, delivers a standout performance as Saul, captivating with a mixture of a peculiar absence, human warmth, and unpredictability. Both evoke sympathy and unease simultaneously, at times almost brushing against the vestibules of malevolent psychosis. Sarsgaard was awarded the Volpi Cup for his role in Venice, but it’s truly the combination of his performance and the Oscar-winning actress for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” that make such a strong impression.

“Memory” is at times an outright thrilling film, expertly seducing the viewer with subtexts and a suitable mixture of escalation and deceleration. This is often a flaw in Franco’s films—the Mexican is known for his penchant for eccentric breakthroughs, not always beneficial to the film. In “Memory,” this is essentially absent, or perhaps in a light version at the beginning, giving the creator time to further adjust the narrative framework. Although towards the end, the film loses some of its earlier momentum and serves up a few overly melodramatic moves, yet compared to Franco’s previous work like “Chronic,” it’s a nearly unnoticed exaggeration. Thus, Franco creates perhaps his most balanced and mature film to date—focusing on the characters and the problem rather than shocking the audience.


Precisely constructed, directed, and performed, this intimate psychological drama delivers everything one would expect from ambitious cinema. It also signals a certain progression for the creator, who despite his established position and codified language, manages to make important adjustments, elevating his work to a higher level. The story of Sylvia and Saul subtly embeds itself in the viewer’s mind, getting under the skin and, as the title suggests, leaving a strong impression, unsettling yet somewhat inspiring. In short, this time around, with “Memory,” we have the best possible version of Michel Franco, one where there’s no need for praises followed by “but…”

Tomasz Raczkowski

Tomasz Raczkowski

Anthropologist, critic, enthusiast of social cinema, British humor and horror films.

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