Director: Michel Franco
93 mins, 15, 19 February 2016 (UK)
Mexican auteur Michel Franco (After Lucia) has, with Chronic, crafted a sombre but compelling film that unsentimentally pushes the last taboo of society right into our faces; the decaying of the body and the way we struggle to reconcile our feelings towards the infirm, despite subconsciously knowing we will share their fate one day (that subconscious certainty itself probably playing a part in our reluctance to interact with those who have simply reached the end game before us). Tim Roth is superb in the lead as the quietly competent, but somehow ‘off’, end-of-life care nurse David, who we see caring for various patients over the course of the film’s 90 minutes. It seems a while since Roth appeared in a film worthy of his talents, and he is well-suited to playing ambiguous characters such as this.
David is a nurse who works specifically with terminally ill patients, and who we initially see as being the picture-postcard of efficient and dedicated care. He develops strong and intimate relationships with each person he cares for, and that is not surprising given he has to aid his patients through all their indignities: shitting and pissing themselves, their moments of despair where they break down suddenly, the exhaustion of chemotherapy that leads them to either slump over or suddenly vomit in the middle of a conversation. It is an uncomfortable (and unusual) viewing experience to see so starkly the nakedness of these frail people, the vulnerability of their bare flesh, the shame on their faces as they have to bare their privates to another person who they have had to invite into their home to clean up after their incontinence. But maybe that jarring viewing experience is the result of our over-exposure as cinema-goers to the Hollywoodization, the prettification, of death.
If the film were to continue to just focus on the physical and emotional challenges of in-house care alone, the dynamics between patient and carer, it would probably make a for a pretty compelling movie. But Franco takes the film in other intriguing – and unsettling – directions. The film challenges the viewer by showing the awkwardness the patient’s families have confronting the slow decay of a loved one, that strange mix of duty and fear that leads to awkward conversations, embarrassed shuffling, and ultimately, the passing off of end of care duties to someone like David. David complicates things via his presence, even if he serves a vital need. Called to one patient’s house – a woman who appeared to have been battling cancer at relatively young age – David storms past the assembled family members declaring he must clean the body: an implicit rebuke to those who have neglected to notice the deceased defecated upon death.
David also seems over-invested in his care for stroke victim and former architect John: a proud and patriarchal type who keeps his family at arm’s length presumably out of the shame of his new and frightening paralysis. After nights spent indulging in porn with John and offering to take other nurses’s shifts so he can remain at his side, David’s intimacy with his charge makes the family so uncomfortable that they actually sue him. Yet there is a kind of hypocrisy in their actions, given they seemed so hesitant at even being in the same room as their once-mighty overlord, now a fallen titan.
The film nails this painful truth about how we can act around the sick perfectly in the sequence where there is intercutting between David caring for the distraught John, who is prone to breakdowns when his family are out of the room, whilst downstairs that same family host a lively dinner party. The sounds of the party do not penetrate the upstairs care room at all, emphasising the total dislocation. This exposing of the shutting away of the dying, the crippled, and those who’s frailty offends us, is one of the strongest emotional punches the film delivers. The writer dares any viewer not to feel a twinge of guilt.
Yet despite this admirable focus on the realities of our mortality, the film is also a character study of the kind of man that can exist in the gap that opens up between familial responsibility and the desires of us all to just get on with our lives, and leave the clean-up to someone else. As it becomes clearer that David is a compromised, deeply ambiguous individual who’s feelings towards his patients go beyond a solemn desire to provide a necessary service, we begin to wonder how far he will go and what his motivations are. Why, for example, does David pretend to be related to John, even at one point blagging his way into one of the houses he designed? What role did the death of David’s son at a young age play in his decision to choose this line of work, and what role did he play in that boy’s end-of-life care situation? And why does David keep refusing to be relieved by other nurses during his long shifts, which results in him spending more time with his patients than their own kin?
If there is a flaw, it is the niggling problem the narrative presents us in reconciling the two different spheres the film seems to be focused on: the exploration of the social taboos of caring for the dying, versus taking us the viewer into the deepening mystery of who David is. What is the film saying about the role someone like David plays in our society? Is it best to approach the film as a kind of thriller, or even horror story, about how ageing and disease leaves us vulnerable to parasitic figures like David? Is this a provocative exploration of how someone like David might feel entitled to gain some kind of emotional and spiritual nourishment, no matter how vampire-like, from those who he keeps all those late night vigils with, while the rest of us ‘healthy’ folk get on with our lives of smartphones and holidays? It is a testament to the confidence of the director and the quality of the acting that this ambiguity is more a strength than a detriment.