Jessica Chastain is a caretaker with demons in Michel Franco‘s “Memory,” the most touching and sensitive film in the career of the director of apocalyptic nightmares like “New Order” and the school bullying revenge drama “After Lucia.”

Chastain stars as Sylvia, a decade-sober alcoholic and social worker now taking care of Saul, a former high-school classmate played by Peter Sarsgaard, under strange circumstances. Sarsgaard won the Volpi Cup (the equivalent of Best Actor) at the Venice Film Festival for his performance as a man rattled by dementia, who follows Sylvia home from a class reunion. They’re across boroughs in New York City, but form an unlikely spark around their traumas, past and present. Sylvia lives with her daughter, played by Brooke Timber, and not far from a nosy but caring sister, played by Merritt Wever, but is chained to awful memories revolving around her mother, played by “Suspiria” icon Jessica Harper. If ever there’s someone to get on the horn to play a recalcitrant estranged matriarch shoving her way into the present, Harper it should be.

Mexican filmmaker Franco wrote and directed “Memory,” which shot on location in New York throughout 2022 before finally landing in Venice this past September. Chastain, back in indie mode and out of the hair and makeup and prosthetics of films like her Oscar winner “Eyes of Tammy Faye” and Emmy-nominated TV series “George and Tammy,” gives a predictably excellent but here unvarnished performance as a troubled woman who lives most comfortably in the present. Her abuse-shaken past is too ugly, and so a man with a constantly refreshing and undoing memory of his own (Sarsgaard’s character) may be her best shot at real kinship.

“We’d just come out of the pandemic and the MeToo movement. As I was reading [the script], I thought, ‘This is a version of a dark revenge thriller where this woman who has been abused now inflicts abuse on others,’” Chastain told IndieWire. “So I just felt this is probably where it’s going to go, and as I turned each page, I was pleasantly surprised that it was a script really devoid of any kind of cliché. What I really responded to was the empathy and the hope at the end. This is for me about two incredible human beings, but also playing Sylvia, it was so much about how this woman has been calcified by life and is only really moving through the world using trauma as a shield to prevent anyone from getting close. By meeting someone who doesn’t have a connection to the past, she’s able to free herself from her past, and she’s able to start again in each day and each moment to discover who she is again.”

Chastain and Franco have already filmed another movie entirely together in San Francisco, “Dreams,” whose plot details remain scarce.

Franco said that “Memory” backers warned him, post-Best Actress win, that Chastain would “show up and be a nightmare and be a diva. I told them, you don’t know half of it. She’s the opposite. She’s going to show up satisfied, happy, and be productive. People are so afraid of actors. I don’t know why. The worst way to approach an actor or any person is with fear, and if you are pointing in the wrong direction then, yes, all your nightmares will come true.”

Indie distributor Ketchup Entertainment is releasing “Memory,” which also stars Josh Charles and Elsie Fisher, in select theaters to qualify for the Oscars on December 22. This tough but must-see melodrama will then open in a wider release beginning January 5 next year.

Watch the trailer below, and read IndieWire’s Critic’s Pick review of the film here.

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