Memory: Built Upon the Scars

Even if our memory filters our past, the truth cannot be changed.

In Memory, Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) is a social worker who lives with her teenage daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber). A victim of abuse who has struggled with addiction, Sylvia is now 13 years sober and has managed to rebuild her life. However, after a high school reunion, her stability is threatened when a man named Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) follows her home. Never speaking a word, Saul stays outside her home all night, forcing Sylvia to get involved. As she gets to know him, Sylvia discovers that Saul has early dementia and requires the care of his brother (Josh Charles). Admittedly, Saul seems charming but Sylvia isn’t convinced as she believes that Saul was involved in raping her as a young teen. But, as secrets begin to be revealed, the question of Saul’s innocence gives way to other dark truths that threaten her family relationships.

Directed by Michel Franco, Memory is a powerful film about we are in our relationship to how we got here. By keeping the camera static throughout much of the film, Franco ensures that the viewer sits with his characters in all their awkward brokenness. In doing so, he brings out their humanity with a quiet reflection. 

Sylvia and Saul feel like real people, bearing the scars of their painful past. Brought to life by some stunning work by Chastain and Sarsgaard, their characters simply don’t know how to tap into the hurts that have marred their youth. However, while Sylvia cannot stop thinking about the things that have happened to her, Saul cannot remember the details of his trauma. This makes for an interesting dichotomy between the two characters as they both remain shaped by their past yet carry different relationships to it.

And our connection to the past is the very pillar upon which the film is built.

Memory reminds us that, while our past continues to shape us, it still has a potential to remain fuzzy. For example, Sylvia remembers the events of her youth in horrifying detail. To her, the pain is all consuming and it remains in the forefront of her mind. The abuse of her childhood haunts her daily, affecting both her relationship to other men and the way that she parents her daughter. However, she also has the potential to remember certain aspects of it incorrectly. While the film (rightly) never questions her abuse, the pain has filtered her lens in ways that initially causes her to inaccurately accuse Saul.

At the same time though, her mother’s inability to accept her daughter’s tales of abuse lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. By denying the truth of her daughter’s childhood, she reframes the present, viewing Sylvia as a liar who ‘has always had problems’. As a result, she continues to cause damage in their relationship and to her daughter’s mental health.

Even so, in both cases, the truth never changes. Sylvia’s pain has had a ripple effect that extends to the present day. The scars of her youth are very real and have left a mark upon her soul. Whether or not these characters can accept the past doesn’t change the events that have taken place. With a sensitive tone, Memory places its emphasis squarely on those moments in our life that reshape us, honouring their pain but also providing a way forward as truth is revealed.

There’s beauty in that, even if there are some things that we wish we could forget.

Memory is available in theatres on Friday, January 19th, 2024.

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