Retrospective analysis – those who have endured struggle with a tumultuous history in a fragile and distressing partnership.

Estimated read time 4 min read


Mexican director Michel Franco, known for his calculated and unflinching dramas, often presented in motionless scenes, has created yet another intricate, emotionally charged and densely crafted film. At the Venice Film Festival, it earned its lead actor, Peter Sarsgaard, the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. The film delves into themes of abuse, violence, healing, and the transformative nature of sexual intimacy, while also exploring the concept of memory and its role in shaping one’s identity over a lifetime. However, memory is an unreliable foundation; it can be both an uncertain support beneath us and a heavy burden weighing us down. It has the power to destroy us completely with its crushing force. Additionally, memory is not always a reflection of the truth, so denying it does not necessarily equate to dishonesty or delusion.

This film possesses the same sharp and distinct quality as Franco’s previous works, with two outstanding and clever lead performances. However, it also has a softer and more soothing conclusion – to the point where one might question if the ending has been sugarcoated, even just a little. Some viewers (myself included) may even contemplate the possibility of a dramatic twist in the third act. Yet, Franco’s decision to focus on the chaotic nature of real life is completely valid.

Sylvia, portrayed by Jessica Chastain, is a social and care worker who is raising her intelligent teenage daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), on her own. She is a recovering alcoholic and has been sober for 13 years – the same amount of time her daughter has been alive. In one scene, we see her attending an AA meeting, but she never reveals the reasons behind her alcoholism. It is unclear if she has shared this information with the group. Her role as a care worker is reminiscent of Franco’s previous film, Chronic, which explores the intense relationship between a worker and their patient – a relationship that borders on the erotic.

Chastain portrays Sylvia as a character who exudes a resilient, independent attitude, but is also emotionally tense with underlying anger and suffering. She resides in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York and has a decent rapport with her sister Olivia (Merritt Wever), who is more well-off. However, Sylvia has a strained relationship with her domineering mother, Samantha, who delivers a powerfully toxic performance portrayed by Jessica Harper.

Despite her reservations, Sylvia attends her high school reunion. However, she is immediately faced with a disturbing encounter when a disheveled man named Saul (played by Peter Sarsgaard) approaches her with a vacant smile. She decides to leave the reunion and the man surprisingly follows her home. It turns out that Saul is suffering from early onset dementia and lives with his brother Isaac (played by Josh Charles) as his caregiver. Isaac apologizes for Saul’s behavior, attributing it to his condition, but Sylvia recognizes Saul from their school days and remembers the mistreatment she endured from him and other boys. She confronts him about their past actions after offering to take care of him one afternoon.

Perplexed and frightened, Saul is unable to recall something. However, when Isaac offers Sylvia a highly profitable job taking care of Saul – who seems to have taken a liking to her in his gentle and timid manner – she agrees and their connection appears to be a mysterious escape from her discontent. However, this is not a typical horror story like “The Night Porter.” The past is unstable and so is the present. We already know that, like many individuals with dementia, Saul struggles to remember recent events but not the distant past. Is it possible that Sylvia is the one with memory issues? In any case, their caregiver-patient relationship continues to evolve.

A more traditional thriller may have followed the initial premise, revealed in the first confrontation scene, and built upon it to create something unsettling. However, this is not the approach taken by Franco. He aims to portray something genuinely uplifting, without any sarcasm or detachment, and narrate a tale in which Saul is fully aware of his own situation and the potential consequences he may face. During a sleepover at Sylvia’s house, Saul wakes up in the middle of the night and struggles to remember which door leads to Sylvia’s room and which leads to Anna’s. This moment is filled with intense suspense and fear. The film is captivating and features outstanding performances by Chastain and Sarsgaard, who display remarkable sensitivity and maturity.

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