LOS ANGELES– When Jessica Chastain first read the script for “Memory,” she was struck by the flood of unanswered questions swirling in her head about issues related to love, sex and consent – this which might be antithetical to what some audiences expect from a film.
“Sometimes I think films can be seen as lectures on the right way to be,” she says.
But the Oscar-winning actor does not subscribe to this philosophy of cinema. And it was writer-director Michel Franco's willingness to explore gray areas and leave questions unanswered that ultimately persuaded Chastain to star in “Memory,” in select theaters, which is scheduled for national release Friday.
“Memory” follows Sylvia (Chastain), who is hired by the family of a man named Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) to keep him company as he suffers from early-onset dementia. Although her caregiving experience is a plus, Saul's family mostly just wants someone to spend time with him – until Sylvia is suspected of developing romantic feelings for Saul.
“It felt like a movie that would be impossible to make in a studio system because there would be so many people, especially in the political environment that we live in, that would walk out of the theater. Me too.” Chastain explains. “Everyone would be so afraid of making a mistake, of saying the wrong things.”
Franco instead opted for an independent production and a budget so small that Chastain and Sarsgaard laughed at his mention.
“If you walked past our set, you wouldn’t know there was a movie being made,” Sarsgaard laughs. “The production design was often what was in the house when we received it. The actors provided much of their own clothing and, in some circumstances, did their own makeup.
But their performances were unhindered by stark sets and minimal dialogue, in part, no doubt, thanks to Chastain and Sarsgaard's theatrical backgrounds.
“If you get rid of all the bullshit, you know, all the extra stuff, and just stick to the basics, then you can tell these more complicated stories,” Sarsgaard says.
In the film, Saul's brother eventually renounces his support for the arrangement, telling Sarsgaard's character that he is not capable of making rational decisions.
“I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t want to know,” the brother tells Sylvia after discovering the couple in a sort of embrace while watching a movie.
“When I thought of it as a love story, I knew it was supposed to be like a forbidden love story. I almost thought of them as teenagers,” says Franco. “I like the idea of broken people challenging society.”
As she reflects on her relationship with Saul, Sylvia also considers her own past. Although she has claimed for years that she was sexually assaulted in high school, her family members maintain that she lied and made holes in her stories – making the film's title not just a reference to the Saul's state.
“It surprised me a little because I hadn't developed this concept. I started writing and when I read the outline, I learned that 'Memory' should be the title because it was about both,” Franco explains. “The ways memories can be reshaped or the stories you tell yourself. »
The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is distributed by Ketchup Entertainment. Heading into awards season, Chastain has already landed an Independent Spirit Awards nomination for Best Lead Performance.
After signing, Chastain recommended Franco to cast Sarsgaard, whose recent credits include “The Batman” and “The Lost Daughter,” a 2022 Oscar-nominated drama directed by his wife, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
“I spent a lot of time looking at Peter's work and, as an audience member, I was really moved by what he did,” Chastain said. “I didn’t know Peter would want to do it, but I knew he was someone who would bring so much to it without vanity. And that was important to me.
After saying yes to the role, Sarsgaard did extensive research before filming, an experience he found enlightening.
“I spoke on the phone every week with two guys who had dementia when I was preparing for this, and you would almost never have known they had dementia,” he recalls. “Every now and then there were signs of it, but it wasn’t constant.”
He said the priority when making the film was not to take serious issues like dementia lightly, sexual assault or dependence – and not to construct caricatures of the people who care for them.
“The first step to achieving this is to not view the trauma or dementia as the character,” says Sarsgaard. “These are the obstacles that the characters face.”