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“I Don’t Want to Corner You”: Michel Franco on Isolation, the Commonality of Trauma and Memory


In nearly all of his eight narrative features, Mexican director Michel Franco has worn his appetite for the most distressed and tormented of human dramas on his sleeve. His characters have vascillated between acts of abject cruelty and silent, practically stoic indifference to their own behaviors, as well as the rueful consequences of their often misguided choices. With each new entry in Franco’s body of work, his approach displays a deft hand for framing and a keen eye for the subtleties of the human condition. In the case of his new Memory, premiering in U.S. theaters today after bowing at Venice earlier this year, there is no exception.

Memory stars Jessica Chastain as Sylvia, a social worker in Queens who is followed home from an uncomfortable high school reunion by a strange man, played by Sarsgaard. The next morning, she finds the man asleep in the rain outside her apartment. She calls his family and learns his name is Saul, and that he suffers from early onset dementia. Sylvia, a recovering alcoholic and survivor of abuse, becomes convinced that Saul is in fact one of her tormentors, and that he no longer remembers this history. When her sister Olivia (played by a truly compelling Merritt Wever) insists that Sylvia has Saul mistaken for someone else — proving to Sylvia that Saul didn’t attend the same school as her and thus couldn’t be one of the young men who assaulted her — Sylvia becomes compelled to reach back out to Saul. In the process, a slow-burning, tragic romance unfolds between these two, much to the dismay of both their families, who attempt to interfere in their bond in ways both minor and devastating.

Filmmaker: What’s the genesis of this project? It’s very different in execution from your previous films, even if there are parallels in the execution, and certainly similar, consistent thematic threads.

Franco: I had the initial idea of a class reunion where a guy would follow the main character home, and I had no idea where it would go, or who they were. I just liked the scene of him following her and not knowing why, and I started to write it in that way, just asking myself who these people were. I knew they were both troubled, broken people, so to speak. At first I thought I was going to create a kind of revenge story, where the accusation was going to be the case, the real thing. It wasn’t until I was speaking with my sister [Victoria Franco, co-director of Franco’s A Los Ojos] just before writing it,that I made the decision to challenge myself with writing a love story instead. My sister was telling me, push yourself in a different direction. And she was right. After New Order or After Lucia, it’s really true that so many of my movies go from bad to worse, and I was in a very peaceful moment in my life, it made sense to listen to her. I try to make a film every year because I want them to reflect where I am at in the course of my own life. There was no other way with this one.

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken previously about how Saul’s degenerative condition, his early onset dementia symptoms, was interesting for you to explore because it’s directly related to your own fears.

Franco: I think the fear of losing one’s own mind is a massive one for me, but then I guess it’s most people’s greatest fear. Certainly one doesn’t want to lose any capacity, particularly a physical capacity, while aging, but for me, the most prideful thought is whether upon losing your mind, you are still yourself, and how that process is for you, how it goes. In the case of Saul, he is trying to keep living in the meantime. Also, with these cases, one can never be sure how fast it’s gonna go, if it’s gonna stop at certain stage.

Filmmaker: The subjectivity of memory that you play with here — Syliva is plagued by her own recollections of abuse, but then early on in the picture she is contradicted by her sister Olivia and proven wrong. It’s because of this questioning of her own memories that she then contends with mistaking Saul for one of her abusers by reaching back out to him, and shortly after, growing close to him. This turn is the impetus in a sense, and sparks the bond that forms.

Franco: Absolutely. She’s a person who’s been living with trauma for a long, long time, as long as she can remember. She’s become used to being humiliated by life, and humbled time and again. She’s in the program [AA meetings become a major set piece for Sylvia’s character], and doing the best for her child, but at the same time, society is telling both Sylvia and Saul to stay away from life. Stay in the program, follow the rules for someone like [her], stay sober, don’t get into trouble, and don’t look for anything else. At the same time, she’s a decent person, to say the least, so she has to go and apologize to Saul. And an emotional door opens without her realizing.

Filmmaker: It also feels like a very common human experience for many — we are convinced of our own memories, of their accuracy, and when we find them debunked, it can be an earth shattering experience. But for Sylvia, this seems like a commonplace interaction between her and the other women in her family — she insists that what she experienced truly did happen, while her relatives either consistently doubt or even openly accuse her of being compulsively dishonest. She’s constantly being made to question her own recall.

Franco: Right, but that right there is motivated. Dismissing her claims is a way of covering up her abuse. As the grandmother says, “She’s always been difficult. She’s always been crazy. She was always a complicated child.” Then it’s easy to conceal everyone else’s bad behavior. It’s such a common thing in life. Dementia is common. Abuse, even incest, is extremely common. And just as commonly not dealt with.

Filmmaker: It’s their way of crushing her, keeping her in her place, denying her reality. It’s also a way her character and Saul are connected. It’s something they both have in common — being consistently doubted by their loved ones.

Franco: In the case of Saul though it’s trickier. I think Isaac, Saul’s brother [played by Josh Charles], means well. But that’s what I try to do. I try to write things where every character in the room is right. Where there’s no clear bad guy. In this case, Sylvia’s mother is on her own level, she’s wrong, but I wouldn’t say she’s evil. Isaac is doing his best for his brother. Who is this woman? A stranger, and what does she want with Saul? And what are the chances for this couple? Live day by day, or plan years ahead?

Filmmaker: In a way, Saul picks her, but it’s unclear what sparks his initial interest. It’s almost inexplicable. Does she remind him of his wife, or is it something else?

Franco: Mainly I think he spots her across the room at the reunion because he sees she’s alone, and they connect because they’re both having a hard time connecting. For Saul, he sees that right away and that’s why he’s drawn to her and makes his approach, why he follows her.

Filmmaker: There’s a truly powerful moment where you illuminate their similarities, that recurs twice in the film. In both, they’re sitting, watching Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat. The first time, Saul confesses he can’t understand the narrative, or movies in general, because of his condition. Sylvia is shocked and tells him if she had known, she wouldn’t have put it on. They laugh it off. Then the second time, they’re watching it again — obviously she’s put it back on and he’s agreed, but now, Sylvia is crying at the scene onscreen. When she turns it off, it’s clear Saul too is crying, but it’s unclear whether it’s because he’s frustrated that he can’t comprehend the on-screen proceedings, or if he’s empathically connected to Sylvia, and senses her emotion and is then drawn to feel the same thing in a sort of compulsive sync with her. It’s a really poignant moment where you show how wounded they both are and how much they both have desires they can’t comprehend, how alike they are in turn.

Franco: Yes. It’s exactly how you describe it. When I wrote it I knew whoever played this, because this kind of moment, I never wanted it to be any one way and that way alone, and the only way you get that, is for the characters to be played by truly incredible actors. That was really the best part of the experience, not just Jessica and Peter, but the whole cast, working with them. In this scene and many others, what Peter played is that even if Saul isn’t mentally a hundred percent there, emotionally he is. He doesn’t have to know or remember that Sylvia is a victim of abuse, for he senses it and would know it just by how she deals with the world, even if he were to forget that detail of her life again.

Filmmaker: It’s pretty excruciating to watch him when he loses his way, the subtlety and then the weight behind his silences.

Franco: A lot of people tell me they feel very tense in the moment where Saul goes to the bathroom and then can’t remember which door in the hallway leads back to Sylvia’s room and which leads to her daughter’s.

Filmmaker: That’s one moment I was thinking of actually.

Franco: But that’s because the audience’s mind goes faster than it should, and that’s an advantage for a filmmaker. The audience is always trying to outguess and then always expecting the worst. But in my mind, that moment wasn’t even a problem for Saul. I always felt that if he went into the wrong room, he would eventually realize he was wrong, you know, “I’m not supposed to be here,” and find his way out.

Filmmaker: But in your work, you definitely tend to create that dread-inducing tension and then undermine or subvert the audience’s expectations. It’s certainly the case with Memory.

Franco: Definitely. The audience should never feel safe watching a movie.

Filmmaker: But by working with suspense levels the way you do, it takes on an unsettling energy, even when it’s more of an existential or psychological threat, and not a more present or direct form of danger, such as in the case of outright violence. It definitely tends to be more shocking than when there is actual violence in your films. The viewer becomes compelled into a state of always being on the edge of their seat, and because you consistently tend to go the other way from what might feel conventional or predictable, it’s more of a rollercoaster. It’s not shocking in terms of being graphic or explicit, but it’s unnerving because of the constant process of discovery.

Franco: The dramatic tension should always be there. That’s why I hate studio movies, all that bullshit, you always feel safe. It’s like reading a kid’s book — you can keep turning the pages and nothing interesting will happen and you won’t be surprised because you feel completely safe, we’re all safe. It’s so lame.

Filmmaker: Is someone like Sylvia or Saul a character you can draw from your own experience, people who you’ve been close to, or something you had to perform objective research to uncover?

Franco: I have a very close friend who had been dealing for years with both his in-laws who had advanced stage dementia, and he would tell me stories, details, and that stayed with me. The same with sex or child abuse — I know a couple of people who survived that. It’s not firsthand, unlike when I shot Chronic, because that was about a nurse and I was dealing with my grandmother. But really, this is my eighth movie, and I shot another already since making this one. If I keep the pace of a movie a year or every other year, I have to start being resourceful and look for inspiration elsewhere. There’s a limit to yourself.

Filmmaker: In many of your films, your depiction of family is one where relatives are either selfishly hurtful, perhaps unintentionally so, or on a surface level, cold and indifferent to the impact their choices have on their loved ones, again, even when they don’t mean to be. Or, there’s a deeper secret preventing them from behaving in a way that’s more caring. In Memory, Saul’s brother Isaac claims to want to protect him from Sylvia, but treats Saul in a way that is condescending and overbearing. In turn, Sylvia’s sister Olivia doesn’t want to believe her claims of being abused as a young girl, in part because their mother Samantha has successfully implanted this suspicion into her perspective of her sister, and she too ends up doubting, questioning Sylvia, implying that she’s lying about what happened to her. In a way, it feels like the films are all saying the same thing through different dynamics — that family can be extremely hurtful, at times unintentionally, at times perhaps motivated by self-protection.

Franco: That’s the tragedy of life. Out of the best intentions even, you hurt those closest to you, and it ends up playing the opposite way from how you wanted it to.

Filmmaker: I’m thinking also of the mother in April’s Daughter, of David in Chronic, of Neil and Alice in Sundown.

Franco: In the case of Sylvia, it’s different from Saul, because it’s the extreme — she is abused and doubted, and that is the worst thing that can happen to a child. In Saul’s case, he’s getting the love and care of his brother, but that’s asphyxiating him.

Filmmaker: Right, it’s flawed between Isaac and Saul because Isaac is trying to protect him.

Franco: The same can be said of Tim’s character [in Sundown]. He’s trying to protect his sister but to her children he seems like he doesn’t care at all. If family was normally as it should be, a warm and safe place, the world we have to deal with would be a much better one. It starts at home, in our childhoods.

Filmmaker: In After Lucia there’s this extreme cruelty conveyed to your main character, and that’s something you revisit in this. With Samantha, Sylvia’s mother, it appears as if she’s actively trying to undermine and isolate her, to keep her marginalized. on the outside of things in the family, even though Sylvia is the one who has chosen and so clearly refuses to have any relationship with her. When she reaches out to her granddaughter, Sylvia’s daughter, she does so in a way that seems designed to hurt her daughter, to alienate her daughter and granddaughter so she can drive her further away.

Franco: In Samantha’s mind, that’s her only way to save herself from the mistakes she made when Sylvia was a kid. She lies in a consistent way, always denies her daughter, and the confrontation between them in that relationship is the true happy ending for the film.

Filmmaker: The actual ending, between Sylvia and Saul, feels so rewarding for the viewer, in a way that none of your other films do in their conclusions.

Franco: I’m glad to hear it. But at the same time, who knows what the world will be for them in two hours, two days, two years? It’s impossible to say.

Filmmaker: Lastly, this film is definitely an outlier in terms of the broad scope of your work, just in terms of the sheer amount of dialogue. It has a great deal more person-to-person dialogue than your previous films, and after getting a chance to read the script, I found it interesting that at one point, there was even more dialogue in there that you clearly excised because you felt it was better to communicate the ideas behind the dialogue with silence.

Franco: Well, it was interesting to publish the actual shooting script and make that available alongside the finished film. I always strip the dialogue as much as possible on the day, and once the actors get in that mode, they help me go in that direction. Less is more, less camera, less score, less dialogue. If we can play the full scene without words and ideas and feelings come across, it’s better. There are others that we improvise and they say more than they were originally supposed to. Not many, but there are some.

Filmmaker: Did all of the movies start out with more dialogue and then get edited down?

Franco: Always. I want to give you as much as I can, but I don’t want to corner you. When I shot my first movie, Daniel and Ana, we shot on 35mm. One, two or three takes. We had to know what you were doing, and that was it. After Lucia, that was the first time I took on every role — writer, director, and also producer — and we shot for 10 weeks, and that’s where I learned how to make films. With Tim, we kept pushing ourselves into more and more silence.

Filmmaker: I just never would have guessed that, watching your other films. I always thought the silences were baked in, so to speak. That the quiet aesthetic was part of the design, and that they were encapsulated in that sense. It definitely provides an opportunity, knowing that, to see the films in a completely new light.

Franco: Things shouldn’t be digested for the audience in advance, you know? I just feel so terribly bored watching things like that.

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