Following his brutal depiction of high school bullying in After Lucia (2012), Mexican director Michel Franco returns to Cannes in competition with Chronic (2015), a slowburning drama about a committed nurse caring for terminally ill patients. In one of the best performances of recent years, Tim Roth stars as David, the palliative care nurse who takes his duties very seriously and perhaps oversteps the bounds. Franco’s style favours the long drawn out take, the stillness of waiting for something to happen, his camera moving infrequently. And this austerity serves the subject as David himself carefully moves and manipulates his patients for their comfort and ease.
David is attentive and considerate, friendly and yet also able to make himself disappear, sitting on a sofa in the background and shrinking into himself. In a long opening sequence, we see him care for a desperately ill woman, utterly focused on her, even at the exclusion of her family, who he ushers away when he feels his patient is tiring. He cooks for her as well, knowing his way around the kitchen with consummate ease and bathes her. There’s a disturbing intimacy, but such is David’s tact and compassion that death is approached with serenity and an atmosphere of love. “Do you attend all your patients’ funerals?” he is asked. “Some,” he replies.
David it seems has no interest in consoling the bereaved his care begins and ends with his patients. However, it is this obsessiveness which bodes no well. Following the funeral, a quietly distressed David goes to a bar where he tells a stranger he was married and his wife died of Aids – the name of the wife is the same as the deceased patient. When he attends his next patient, David’s tests the limits of caring in a professional context. John is a stroke victim who obviously has a lot of anger towards his family. A wealthy architect, power has shifted away from him, and though his son sometimes looks in and an older relatively is shouted at, they are happy to leave the cantankerous old fellow to David. Franco puts his thumb on the scale with the depiction of the family. A childrens’ birthday party goes on downstairs while upstairs John is in great physical pain. But despite this callousness it is David who is accused of inappropriate behaviour and the reaction of his agency reveals this might not be the first time. Why David is like this and what he gets from it is revealed as we get to know about his own desiccated private life.
For the most part, Franco keeps the melodrama to a minimum and keeps the emotional tone as subdued as Roth’s nuanced performance. Roth suggests a man who needs to care for people far more than the people need to be cared for. His altruism is almost a literal rendition of the imperative: ‘Physician, heal thyself’. His gaze is wavers and he never speaks above the level of an intensive care unit, but his character is there in his immediate actions, the well-practised movements, the knowledge of what hurts and how to ease it. In his strangeness, there is also an implicit criticism of a society which distrust caring and would rather have a clinically detached approach. An unnecessarily loud ending is an unwelcome jolt that will likely divide audiences down the middle, but Chronic is an otherwise unique character study of endearing depth.