Dir/Wri: Michel Franco | Cast: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Brooke Timber, Merritt Wever, Elsie Fisher, Jessica Harper, Josh Charles | US Drama 92′
If past trauma and repressed memory is your thing then this quietly intense drama from Mexican auteur Michel Franco will certainly appeal. It won Peter Sarsgaard Best Actor at this year’s VENICE FILM FESTIVAL. He plays Saul, a Brooklyn-based social worker suffering from dementia whose altruistic intentions are caught in the headlights of his damaged co-worker’s recollections. Memory is a welcome addition to his previous features Chronic and Sundown.
Jessica Chastain is Sylvia, a gentle soul who looks after people with mental health issues. Peel back the layers of her buttoned-up persona and we uncover a former alcoholic, three years in recovery, and fiercely protective of her daughter Anna (promising newcomer Brooke Timber) who has grown up fast in dealing with her mother’s troubled past.
Sylvia and Saul are instantly drawn to one another at a school reunion when they are reintroduced by her younger married sister Olivia (Wever). But her attraction to Saul is laced with a sense of misgiving and she pulls away. It soon emerges that Saul’s attraction to Sylvia stems from an incident in the past that he fails fully to bring to mind, so hazy is his memory of past events. Sylvia, on the other hand, has a laser sharp recollection of that incident that left her traumatised, and she leaves the party. Saul follows her home but ends up spending the night outside her building unable to gain access. The following morning Sylvia finds him unconscious in the freezing weather and calls the emergency services and his brother Isaac (Charles), to come to collect him.
Sylvia is determined to confront Saul who is in the early stages of dementia. Her accusations flood out angrily and Saul is upset and unable to comprehend her hostility in the light of his own very different recall. It turns out that Sylvia’s memories are not exactly accurate either but clearly both are coming from a position of loneliness and low level depression and Chastain and Sarsgaard handle this with thoughtful consideration. Jessica Harper makes a robust return to the screen as Sylvia’s estranged mother Samantha, who offers further insight into her daughter’s troubled past reminding us that we can never fully erase the stain of our family backstory.
“A Whiter Shade of Pale,” makes for a sober soundtrack incorporating nostalgia into the mix. Franco directs with confidence maintaining the unsettling tone throughout and as suppressed memories surface this sinister undertone keeps mawkishness at bay. Recriminations are never allowed to derail the sensitivity of the unfolding drama. Not an easy film to watch but certainly one that is well-judged and superbly performed. @MeredithTaylor
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2023