The smallest and subtlest film in the main competition at Cannes this year, Mexican director Michel Franco’s “Chronic” offers a measured portrait of a hospice nurse (played by Tim Roth) who tends to terminally ill patients, respectfully observing his difficult and emotionally draining job while bluntly asking the question: Who cares for the caregiver? Echoing Michael Haneke’s “Amour” in key aspects of style and theme without achieving nearly the devastating impact of that Palme d’Or winner, Franco shifts the emotional center of his film away from the bond between a dying woman and her closest loved one, zeroing in on the uncomfortable truth that, in many cases, the people who connect most closely to such patients in their final days are not immediate family members, but their nurses. Needless to say, the subject is anti-commercial in the extreme, and the approach even more so, relegating this sensitive portrait primarily to festivals.
As in his previous two features, “After Lucia” and “Daniel and Ana,” Franco approaches discomfitingly intimate material from an objective and virtually documentary-like distance, asking audiences to do the heavy lifting required to arrive at a meaningful emotional response. There is no score here, while the camerawork could hardly be more restrained. According to this critic’s count, there are just 97 shots in the entire film, lasting just under a minute apiece on average, making for a rather taxing viewing experience for those accustomed to movies that tell them what to feel.
With a minimum of hand holding and a complete absence of exposition, Franco opens on a middle-class home, as seen through the windshield of a parked car. A young woman walks out, gets into her SUV and pulls away, and the camera turns ever so slightly to reveal Roth as the driver of the car that follows her. Roth plays David Wilson, though we don’t know that yet, which makes it hard to understand what he does next: sitting at his computer staring at the Facebook photos of one Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland). Is he a contract killer? Some kind of sexual pervert? Lacking context, these fragments hover in the background, lending a curious air of mystery to the first half of the film.
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Only later does the film reveal — and even then, one must do a fair amount of detective work to piece together clues that are perfectly clear, if somewhat opaquely presented — that David’s own son had wrestled with terminal illness, too, and that his decision to pull the plug created a situation for which his ex-wife and daughter have never entirely forgiven him. So, every day, David must go around with that choice weighing on his conscience, on top of all the emotional demands of his day job, which amounts to shouldering the responsibility of care for other people’s loved ones.
Told in a direct linear style that nevertheless allows untold (and occasionally disorienting) gaps of time to elapse within each cut, Franco’s script focuses on David’s state of mind, calling on audiences’ abilities of deductive empathy to interpret where he is emotionally at any given point. During the vague number of weeks that pass, we see him working with four different patients, beginning with an alarmingly thin AIDS victim named Sarah (Rachel Pickup). When she dies, David goes above and beyond to preserve her dignity, later appearing to be as hard-hit by her passing as any of her family members.
In a telling yet understated scene, Sarah’s sister (Kari Coleman) asks him for answers, recognizing the connection David shared with Sarah during her final days — and inadvertently revealing her own shortcomings, obviously finding it easier to speak with Sarah’s nurse than to have visited her sister in person. (Two shots later, strangers in a bar inquire about David’s melancholic state, and he bends the truth, telling them his wife has just died for reasons — pity? delusion? — about which audiences are free to speculate.)
This, of course, is the touchy paradox on which “Chronic” hinges: As humans, we are frequently disgusted by frailty and scared of mortality, especially when such issues apply to close family. Meanwhile, some people are inherently better suited to providing care, meaning it often takes an outsider to give the kind of support spouses or children might have been expected to provide in the same culture mere centuries ago.
Like the Isabelle Huppert character in “Amour,” the various family members in “Chronic” are often unavailable when they’re needed, then prone to overcompensating — or meddling, even — after the fact. That’s true of not only the woman at the funeral, but also the family of David’s next patient, a surly stroke victim (Michael Cristofer) whose children decide to sue David for sexual harassment. It’s a strange way of expressing their concern, but perhaps the only way they know how.
Compared with Franco’s understandably divisive past work, in which the line between sympathy and sadism is far more ambiguous, “Chronic” represents a straightforwardly sensitive portrayal of a subject with many intriguing moral dimensions to consider. It’s a deep yet somewhat distant film, and Roth — who expressed an interest in collaborating with Franco after awarding “After Lucia” the top prize from Cannes’ Un Certain Regard jury, over which he presided — makes an interesting choice for the role. He’s a tough actor, and one who doesn’t exactly radiate with humanistic concern, with the result that David can frequently seem inscrutable. And yet, his actions clearly reveal how intensely he cares for his patients throughout, especially during in his handling of a cancer victim (Robin Bartlett) who asks him to euthanize her.
Like Haneke or fellow Mexican director Amat Escalante (“Heli”), Franco is unblinking in his portrayal of difficult subject matter, whether it be the practical demands of David’s decidedly unglamorous job (immodestly depicting the bathing rituals for bodies in various states of physical decrepitude, for instance) or the compromised peacefulness of a patient’s final moments. The same approach extends to the film’s shocking final shot, which raises a wealth of questions, then rather unfairly cuts to black — a scandalously abrupt ending to all that has come before.
Even at 93 minutes, the film is slow, but as anyone who’s dealt with a disabled person can tell you, the pace of life downshifts considerably, operating at the patient’s speed. By reflecting that onscreen, Franco provides ample room in which audiences can fill the space with associations from their own life. “Chronic” may be a demanding movie to watch, but it’s also one with enormous potential for audiences to personalize, expanding in the hours and days that follow.