Film Review - Chronic

Michel Franco’s remarkably assured English-language debut, Chronic, (2015) follows David (Tim Roth), a hospice nurse, and his care of terminally-ill patients. Initially, David appears efficient and compassionate and has an easy going rapport with his charges. He forges closes links with many of them and assiduously performs duties that family members cannot contemplate. It’s interesting to note that Franco, a native Mexican, should conceive of, write and direct the film. Mexicans are renowned for their family-centred culture and generally prefer to care for loved ones themselves rather than hiring professionals. This is in marked difference to the American families depicted in Chronic who, if they can afford to, employ caregivers to ease the passing of relatives, many of whom see out their final days in a nursing home.

Cleverly, Franco establishes the awkwardness of this approach with numerous shots of David, effectively a paid outsider, painstakingly bathing or feeding his patients and cleaning them after they vomit or defecate themselves, while family members hover ineffectually in the background. Some may suggest that bodily functions and physical weakness are not the subjects of great films but, just as Michael Haneke demonstrated in Amour, Franco shows us that mortality and illness, in their startling ordinariness, are compelling subjects.

From the memorably long silence of his opening shot, observed through a car’s windscreen, Franco plays with various cinematic tropes to confound our expectations. We discover that it is David who spying on a house. He watches a young woman leave, get into a car and drive away. He follows her. Later, we see him trawl through online photographs, closeups of the same woman (as a child, teenager and adult) who, we learn, is called Nadia (Sarah Sutherland). Is this loving behaviour or just sinister and obsessive stalking?

Throughout Chronic David is seen physically crossing various thresholds and mentally transcending boundaries. His ambivalent behaviour is reflected in the attention he lavishes on his patients. At times, his care feels rather too much and a little bit creepy. Gradually, we learn that David has a habit of identifying with the afflicted. Following the death of Sarah (Rachel Pickup) David tells a newly engaged couple he meets in a bar that his wife has just died of AIDS. After caring for John (Michael Cristoferis), an irascible stroke victim and former architect, David quickly imagines himself in that profession. His biggest test comes in the form of Marta (Robin Bartlett), a middle-aged woman dying of cancer, who wants David to assist her suicide.

Chronic is a towering achievement. Roth gives a beautifully understated performance as David who, we learn, is nursing his own bereavement and keeping under wraps a terrible personal tragedy. It is only in the film’s final third that Franco reveals the reasons for David’s contradictory behaviour – the care he lavishes on his patients and the lack of regard for himself, the kindness he expresses and the grief he is unable to articulate. Life is short and Franco forcefully reminds us of this in his unexpected closing shot. Chronic is visceral, shocking and poignant; heralding Franco as a daring filmmaker and major new talent.

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