Forget About It — Memory

William J Hammon
11 min readDec 27, 2023

It is a rare thing when I am truly offended by a movie, even rarer when it’s an independent one. There are usually a couple of mainstream pictures each year that fill me with rage because of how craven the corporate cash grab may be, or the overabundance of fart jokes in lieu of a story. But an artistic project that’s competently made? That’s almost unheard of for me. I think the last time it happened was for The Tree of Life, which so many critics lauded as one of the best films of its year, and even of the 21st century to date, but all I saw were a bunch of pretty shots that made no sense, in service of a plot that went nowhere, including a 35-minute aside about the formation of life on Earth that included a predatory dinosaur taking pity on a sick herbivore, as if it had the capacity for mercy. When one of the supposed best films of all time makes me scream, “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE?!?!?!?!?!” at multiple points, that’s about as close as I get to truly incensed.

So know that I don’t say this lightly. I am offended by Memory. Written and directed by Michel Franco, who has a history of making provocative films about people with medical issues and dealing with death ( After Lucia, Chronic, Sundown), it’s pretty clear that he brings that experience with him into this effort. I haven’t seen those other works, but if they’re anything like this, I have no desire to, because at its core, this is a movie about normalizing sickness and romanticizing abuse, to the point where the central story is played like a literal rom-com despite its tragic (and at times horrid) backdrop. I don’t often say that I genuinely hate a movie. I hate this.

It begins promisingly enough, as Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) is celebrating over a decade of sobriety, attending her anniversary AA meeting with her daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber). They live in a small apartment in New York above a store, where Sylvia keeps security extra tight. For example, when a refrigerator repair man comes (Ross Brodar), she refuses to let him in because he’s not the woman she requested. She’s very hesitant around any strange men. Apart from this clear trigger, she keeps things relatively well-adjusted, even applying herself as a social worker to help those in similar situations to her own.

So far, so good, right? I can get behind the story of a recovering alcoholic doing their best to do right by their child and building a new life after some severe trauma that will surely be explored in detail, sometimes even excruciatingly so. If it aids the character and her journey, I’m basically on board, especially when you have such a magnetic performer as Jessica Chastain in the lead role.

With the repeated goading of her sister Olivia (Merritt Wever), Sylvia agrees to go to an informal high school reunion-type party. It’s definitely not her scene, as she clearly has social anxiety issues, and of course the temptation of booze will be ever-present. Instead, she’s accosted by Saul (Peter Sarsgaard, awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival), who approaches in silence and creepily sits down beside her. Sylvia is disturbed, and hastily makes an exit, with Saul following her the entire way, including on the train. He keeps his distance, but his behavior is distinctly stalkerish, to the point that once Sylvia is safely inside her home, he sleeps on the sidewalk outside, not moving until Sylvia calls the police the next day.

It turns out that Saul is not trying to attack her. He has dementia, and for reasons even he doesn’t understand, he saw something familiar in her and followed her during a lapse in his lucid state. His brother Isaac (Josh Charles) is contacted, and he apologizes profusely for what must have been a stressful and confusing episode. He explains that Saul’s diagnosis is fairly recent, and that he’s been having these incidents where he basically sleepwalks while wide awake, not knowing where he’s going or why.

Okay, I’m still with this, but I have concerns, mostly because this is just a weird encounter, and I’m kind of puzzled about what this is building to. Isaac invites Sylvia over to apologize yet again, but she initially resists. She explains to Olivia that she knows who Saul is, that he was a friend of one of her exes, and that she doesn’t want to be around him. Still, she eventually acquiesces and goes to see Saul across town, where he lives in a rather nice house, having earned a good deal of money over the course of a successful career, which is obviously now over with this development, particularly since he basically can’t remember most new information he gets. Isaac’s daughter, Sara (Elsie Fisher), gives Saul a lanyard to wear in case he gets lost again, which has their contact information on it, and at Isaac’s suggestion, Sylvia takes him for a walk in the park.

Alright, things are wearing thin, but I’m still cautiously optimistic. Both Sylvia and Saul have suffered something, so maybe they can form a friendship based on the randomness of their meeting. I-I-I can still enjoy this, right? Wrong. Once alone in the park, Sylvia informs Saul that she knows his past, accusing him of raping her when she was a teenager. The “ex” previously mentioned was an older boy who raped her repeatedly, and apparently Saul once got in the action, explained in graphic detail. He swears he doesn’t remember anything about this, and that he never met her before the party the other night, but she doesn’t buy it. In one of the cruelest acts I’ve ever seen on film, she takes his lanyard off, tosses it into the woods, and leaves him behind, screaming, “You deserve what’s happening to you!”

JESUS, THAT’S A TURN! And oddly, I’m still almost there with it. That’s the kind of twist I like. It’s shocking, but it could make for an incredible character study. A woman driven to alcoholism by sexual abuse, encountering one of her attackers decades later when he’s afflicted with a disease where he can’t remember, and he’ll continue forgetting as time goes on? That is ripe for nuance and brutally honest development. I’m incredibly taken aback, but intrigued nonetheless.

Unfortunately, all this compelling drama is completely abandoned. Remember what I said about him forgetting new information? Yeah, this crime wouldn’t have been new. It would have happened 30 years previous, so presumably it’s still in his memory banks… or at least it would be, if it had actually occurred. See, it turns out that Sylvia got it wrong. Olivia looked Saul up. They had in fact never met before. Saul became friends with her rapist a year after they moved away. She just conflated memories from yearbook pictures.

Amazingly, this is still salvageable. Understanding her error, Sylvia apologizes, and even takes Isaac up on an offer to be a visiting nurse for Saul. She’s the first new person he’s remembered in a while, so he’ll be safer with her than someone new, and it would give Isaac and Sara peace of mind when they’re at work and school and handling Saul’s affairs, as he’s no longer of sound mind to see to his finances. Maybe they can come to an understanding. Maybe she can heal a bit through healing him. Maybe she can fill in some of the gaps in his memory, and they can form a nice rapport.

Nope. Instead of creating a mutually beneficial friendship that explores their collective pains, Sylvia instead initiates a romantic and sexual relationship with Saul.

WHAT?!

Okay, I fully admit that I may be biased, given the events I’ve had to endure over this year, and really the three years before as well, but what in the Disney Channel fuck is that? A romance, played for cuteness, between a dementia patient and the woman who wrongly accused him of rape? Are you shitting me?

That is grotesque. That is horrendous. That is just. Plain. WRONG! Allow me to elucidate. Dementia is not something you get over. You don’t recover your memories or your sense of self. It is a progressive, degenerative brain disease that robs a person of everything they are. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, and Sylvia literally wished it upon someone she mistakenly thought abused her. So any rooting interest I have in her is instantly gone. But more importantly, when the diagnosis happens, it comes with an understanding that in most cases, the patient is no longer able to make sound and informed decisions for themselves. This includes legal and financial decisions. That’s why Isaac as his next of kin and power of attorney, makes them for him.

You know what that also includes? Consent. The rules vary from state to state and country to country, but the basic standard in most of the U.S. is that a dementia patient can no longer give informed consent for sexual intercourse. Exceptions are made in cases of married couples or those in established, long-term relationships, but that’s pretty much it. It wouldn’t apply to people who just met. So for all intents and purposes, after falsely accusing Saul of rape… Sylvia rapes him. And this stunning development is never once brought up on legal, moral, or ethical terms. Instead, most of the time Sylvia and Saul spend together is treated like a series of meet-cutes. Technically, Saul does take the lead the first time (someone needs to pop the cyst on Sarsgaard’s back), but by the laws of the land, it’s still up to Sylvia to decline in that case. You cannot be sure he knows what he’s doing, that he’s having feelings for her or someone he imagines her to be, and he could always lapse again mid-coitus. It is a dangerous can of worms.

Imagine if the genders were reversed. No one would question for a second that this was disgusting and abusive, especially since it violates the boundaries of nurse and patient, and not in the Florence Nightingale Syndrome tropey kind of way that can sometimes be endearing in less severe circumstances. I literally just watched my mother succumb to this disease over the last three years. Even at the beginning, if she had suddenly become attracted to her male nurse and tried to bang him, I’d be beside myself with anger, and if he reciprocated, I’d have had his ass thrown in jail in heartbeat. That’s what’s going on here.

What baffles me so much is that, even if this is the road you wanted to go down, there was a way to make it work. It would have taken a day to write and maybe two extra days to film. Just create a scene where Saul is evaluated to see if he can consent to a sexual relationship. Test his mental acuity, either before a court or a team of doctors, and let Sylvia and Isaac know the ramifications of what entering into this could mean in the short and long term. If you do that, then you can have the sickly sweet courtship moments, because at least there’s an acknowledgement of how fucked up this sounds on its face. But no, we’re just meant to take it as perfectly normal and good that these two mentally ill people found comfort in one another, reality and laws be damned!

But even worse than the fake saccharine moments are two major problems. First is that Franco does everything in his power to make this coupling seem not only proper, but inevitable. Isaac turns into the bad guy for keeping them apart. Oh yeah, the person responsible for the financial and emotional load of everything that’s about to follow. He’s a dick because he doesn’t want someone else taking physical advantage of his brother while he watches him die. What an asshole! On the other side, Sylvia has a ton of unresolved issues with her mother Samantha (Jessica Harper), who refuses to acknowledge that Sylvia was molested by her father. This could have provided some kind of entertaining and poignant melodrama, but a) Sylvia has been established as an unreliable witness in this regard thanks to her initial behavior towards Saul, and b) Samantha is really only there to create false tension about Anna wanting to get to know her grandmother, creating more stressful histrionics that only drive Sylvia into Saul’s arms and crotch as a source of comfort.

The second is that Franco, for all his bear-poking, appears to have never met a real dementia patient, because he almost entirely eschews the actual medical complications at play. The way Saul is in this movie is only the beginning. It will only get worse from here until the disease finally takes him. It could be weeks, months, years, or more, but it will happen, and Franco, through Sylvia, states plainly that he’s not prepared to deal with the consequences of that truth. The closest we come is a late scene where Saul has a lapse while in Sylvia’s apartment, and in his fugue state, he sees the doors to both Sylvia’s and Anna’s bedrooms, and he’s not sure which one he’s supposed to go into. I was about to scream from my seat that Franco better not turn this into a situation where Saul forces himself on Anna thinking it’s Sylvia, and thankfully, he doesn’t, but even the resolution of this moment shows that this arrangement cannot work, and it is the worst type of ignorance and cruelty to suggest that it can.

So why am I not giving this an F? I mean, we have a case where a woman rapes a demented man after mistaking him for a rapist, and a writer and director treating it like it’s the old trope of one damaged person meeting another damaged person, falling into mutual damage, and calling it love. Well, for one, it is very well shot, and despite the debauched subject matter, Chastain and Sarsgaard deliver it excellently, even if Sarsgaard plays Saul like a warmed-over David Harbour at times. For another, I’ve said before that I am more forgiving of ambitious failures than I am of safe mediocrity. I absolutely loathe what Franco did here, but I have to give him credit for challenging the audience, even if it wasn’t intentional. He gives viewers a love story that any right-thinking person would say is borderline obscene, and dares you to enjoy it. Somehow, a lot of critics did, to the point that it has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Clearly I’m in a minority here.

I just don’t see what they do, though, and in fact I was more angry watching this and hearing the audience at AFI Fest chuckle at the Three’s Company-level humor that’s peppered throughout, as if this was a more serious version of 50 First Dates or some shit, than I have been at any movie in a long, long time. Maybe some years down the road I’ll appreciate it more, as the pain of watching my own mother’s deterioration ebbs and thoughts of myself getting the villain treatment for trying to make her last days as comfortable as possible fade away, but I doubt it. Franco took a decent idea for a dramatic pairing — a man who can’t remember and a woman who wishes to forget — and turned it into what any reasonable observer would see as an endorsement for sexual assault, using rom-com tropes and cheap maudlin drama to justify it. I applaud the gusto, but I hate the result.

Grade: D+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What movie do you despise that everyone else loves? How would you react to a demented relative trying to get some with their nurse? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on December 27, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com