There is no substitute for understatement. While occasionally accused of regression or simply chasing novelty affectation, minimalist film-making typically occupies certain areas of the contemporary cultural zeitgeist reserved for the more intimate regions of human experience. Mexican writer-director Michel Franco is no stranger to these parts, his two previous films Daniel & Ana and After Lucia being brutally austere portrayals of forced incestuous sex and slut-shaming, respectively. These were both shot with an unflinching veracity that quickly garnered melancholy nods of approval from the critical elite. Tim Roth was President of the Jury the day that the latter received the 2012 Un Certain Regard top prize at Cannes, and Franco’s latest offering, Chronic (his first English language feature) sees Roth elevated to a starring role in this bleak, emotionally wrought study of the indignities and isolation of terminal illness.
David (Roth) is a palliative care nurse who becomes deeply involved in the lives of his patients. Given that these lives are limited, he has learnt to effectively transfer his concern from one patient to the other, exhibiting high levels of emotional intelligence and empathy in dealing with the stark realities of end-of-life monotony. The dilemma, however, is that he struggles to engage and communicate with humans who aren’t dying or in chronic pain, and the families of those for whom he cares are dealt with in short bursts of irritability or callous disapproval. Much of the film’s narrative structure is sporadic, and we learn about David’s character through vignettes of conventional social interaction scattered through the 90-minute running time, but Roth’s portrayal is so subtly nuanced that he is endearing in spite of some dubious moral judgments.
While many will undoubtedly point to the similarities in style and substance to auteur extraordinaire Michael Haneke, Franco’s own aesthetic idiosyncrasies are pronounced enough that there is a palpable sense of something special happening here. The almost surgical realism of his previous outings is continued but similarly doesn’t become sterile, with Yves Cape’s glassy-eyed cinematography woven into a mosaic of fragmentary, almost standalone scenes; we are made to feel like cold, casual observers to the insular despair ensuing onscreen, just as David has become anaesthetised to it.
Films like Chronic are perhaps the only means by which we can comprehend our own mortality, our own inexorable trudge towards nostalgia and incontinence. Probability suggests that most of us will meet our ends in similar vein, without glory or immediacy, and if we’re lucky it will fall to people like David to care when others have washed their hands of us, in every sense. We need people like David.
Chronic is released in select cinemas on 19th February 2016.
Watch the trailer for Chronic here: