David Wilson (Tim Roth) is a nurse who specialises in home care, where he is assigned to various patients who are suffering from a serious illness or condition, often terminal, and he looks after them. Currently he is looking after a woman who is wasting away and needs twenty-four hour care, which means David makes sure she eats her meals, takes her medication, bathes her, is able to meet her friends and family and so on with the minimum of hassle for her or those she knows. This work takes a lot of patience, and he is filled with nothing but when it comes to his charges, but in his private life David is brusque, has a broken marriage, and appears to channel all his compassion into his occupation.
As opposed to benefitting those who he could establish loving relationships with such as his family for instance, but this dichotomy, that we are watching this hard to read man intently to see which way he is going to fall, was at the heart of the tension in writer and director Michel Franco's Chronic. Not the most promising title for a film, though it refers to the state of the patients as well as the state of its protagonist's mentality rather than a self-deprecating comment on the quality of the work. That said, this may have been a winner at Cannes (not for Best Actor for Tim Roth as you may have expected, but for Best Screenplay), but there were some viewers who had a reason to take against it.
Certainly an unflinching examination of terminal or severely disabled patients was not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and Franco's matter of fact approach somehow made it less intimate than intrusive, one step away from a documentary in style and subject matter, but to some eyes it looked very like another film of a couple of years before, Still Life. So much so that if you'd seen that, then you would be well aware of how this ended as Franco lifted bits and pieces from it to inform his own essay on the human condition, and with that in mind you could be forgiven for not being interested in giving Chronic a try when there was another effort almost identical in its plot beats that was rather better thought of.
On the other hand, you would then be missing out on a very strong performance by Roth, who given what his job is should be likeable and relatable, yet somehow, unnervingly leaves you cold. When he is accused of sexual harassment of an elderly stroke victim patient because he allowed the man to watch pornography and bathed him when a family member noticed the patient was aroused, you're either thinking the family do not understand the basics of looking after someone who is struggling to control their body or that David has been rumbled and you're not in the least bit surprised that he has been suspended and is forced to go on to find private care work for sufferers who are living alone. But are either of these positions justified, or is the truth somewhere in between?
Franco declines to offer a concrete answer, indeed he dramatically shies away from giving one in the abrupt final scene, but we have noted that he began his film with a sequence where David sits outside a house in his car until a woman emerges and drives off, whereupon he follows her. There's only one way we can react to that, which is to suspect David of being up to no good, though again you will be frustrated there were no obvious answers forthcoming and much of this is left hanging in space. The other element Franco was keen to depict was the indignity of serious illness, and the lead character does seem to offer a lot of help to people who have soiled themselves, cannot move properly, or even simply need company to watch television with, but does his insistence on doing double shifts indicate a caring personality or does he relish the dominance he has over the patients? Roth played his cards very close to his chest in a finely balanced portrayal, yet the conclusion you have to bring is that David, for all the assistance he brought and the succour he provided, had some ulterior motive that he may not be able to identify in himself, so if that were the case what hope did we have in the audience?
[Curzon's DVD has a trailer as an extra and that's your lot, but the picture and sound are clear, even if the meaning is not.]