NOTE: I genuinely believe that any potential viewers of Chronic should endeavour to come to the film with as little information about it as possible. The following review contains significant analysis of key scenes that may spoil the overall effect of the film for a viewer.
Dir: Michel Franco
Starr: Tim Roth, Rachel Pickup, Michael Cristofer, Robin Bartlett, Sarah Sutherland
Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3)
Until I sat down in the Filmhouse’s smallest screen and watched the unforgiving Chronic I had no idea who Michel Franco was. After the film’s closing act of self-sabotage I had to find out more about this clearly talented but extremely problematic filmmaker. Franco’s last film After Lucia (2012) had garnered him some acclaim at Cannes, including the attention of Tim Roth the president of the 2012 Un Certain Regard competition who bestowed the prestigious award upon that film. So it should come as no surprise that Roth lends his acting talents to this latest effort. Nor should it be any kind of shock that Franco walked away from Cannes 2015 with an award for Best Screenplay, particularly as the festival had been a strong supporter in the development of the production. Yet questions need to be asked of the Cannes festival jury as to what strengths they saw in this innately cruel and slyly manipulative screenplay. Is this simply another example of Cannes’ promotion of an auteurist agenda regardless of the overall quality of the work presented?
Chronic is ostensibly a character study, focusing upon David (Tim Roth) and his role as a caregiver for people who are terminally ill. However, the film isn’t solely concerned with this difficult subject matter, rarely seen in the movies, it is also interested in other notions of dependency, as well as deliberately toying with the audience’s preconceptions and understanding of cinema narrative. The composition of the opening ten minutes of the film serves as a microcosm of Franco’s controlling and deliberately duplicitous approach.
The film begins with a sequence that is mainly comprised of a long tracking shot. However, initially this shot seems to be presented to us as the fixed frame presentation of a suburban home and driveway. This is quickly recontextualised by a frame within the frame, namely that of the windscreen of a car parked opposite the house. The shot is now given some degree of agency as the audience is made aware of its potential POV nature. When a young woman exits the house and gets into her car, the person who has been sat in the car opposite now tails her. Within this tracking shot we are then presented with the character of David, as the camera pans away from the windscreen to focus momentarily upon him, a middle-aged man following a young woman. This sequence then cuts to another fixed frame shot presenting David in a spartanly furnished room, sat at a computer desk, scrutinising something on the computer screen. Franco cuts to a fixed framing of the computer screen and the audience is shown that David is clicking through the pictures present on the Facebook profile of the young woman we saw earlier – her name is Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland). The blunt cuts from these photographic images to the stark title of the film and then to a distressing fixed frame shot of a young emaciated woman Sarah (Rachel Pickup), barely able to keep sitting up straight upon the chair hoist of a bath tub, give the audience a new and disturbing context for the character of David. In this first post-title shot David is bathing Sarah. He is doing so in a manner that suggests a professional purpose and a degree of intimacy between Sarah and himself. It seems obvious that David is Sarah’s carer, but it isn’t as obvious as to precisely why he is caring for her. Is he a family member or a hired help? There is a tenderness in the way that David goes about bathing Sarah that runs contrary to the otherwise obvious signs of professionalism.
What becomes apparent as the film progresses is that David, despite his generally professional approach to his work as a carer, is somebody who struggles with, or deliberately transgresses, the boundaries between the professional and the social, the impersonal and the intimate. On arriving at John’s home David immediately sets about demonstrating practical ways in which he can make this patient’s predicament easier. John has just suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving him bedbound. Franco uses David’s initial encounters with John and his various concerned family members to demonstrate how attentively the caregiver empowers his patient by wrestling the decision-making process away from these relatives and back within the patient’s control. Whereas the relatives tell David what John might need, David takes each one of their comments and directs it in the form of a question to John. Only when John has responded does David then act. Once more this would appear to show David’s professional approach to his occupation, yet it also enables David, over time, to keep the relatives at an ever-increasing distance. It helps that John is wonderfully portrayed by the caustically intelligent playwright Michael Cristofer.
A rather ingenious facet of the script is how it unfolds time. The audience is never really sure of the time that has passed between cuts. Moreover, Franco frequently approaches each sequence as if he were thrusting the audience into the middle of something. This creates an unsettling sense of narrative disorientation that fosters maximum ambiguity within many key scenes. One such important scene involves David going to a bookshop to enquire about the availability of some architectural texts. John’s profession was that of an architect (“Nothing special. Functional stuff.”) and my initial assumption in this scene was that David was getting some books for John, or maybe for himself so that he could have something to talk about with John. However, the scene actually points up the degree of David’s social dysfunction, as he enters into an excruciating conversation with one of the bookshop clerks. In this conversation David presents himself, for the second time in the film, as someone who is assimilating facets of his patients’ lives to flesh out his own biography. In this case he pretends to be an architect and parrots lines that John has mentioned to him. Franco never explicitly qualifies why precisely David does this, although there is an abiding sense that David is seeking to resolve his own traumas by empathetically and imaginatively inhabiting the realities of his patients.
Chronic is fortunate to have the physical presences and acting talents of the likes of Pickup, Cristofer and Bartlett. Each of these actors brings a specific set of physical vulnerabilities to the film, their bodies are sites of disease and exhibit thus. Pickup’s skeletal thinness encourages a simultaneous empathy and voyeurism. Cristofer’s soft, comfortable middle-age spread makes his debilitating stroke symptoms seem all the more frightening as they chime with the around about manner in which he is forced to communicate – he is a man swaddled in the suffocating softness of atrophy. Bartlett’s aged female frame expresses a stymied maternity and a stoic defiance of her disease, with her flesh settling on the brink of collapse, the brink of decay. There is a poignancy in each of these performances that never descends into the maudlin sentimentality of more conventional films about disease and dying. If anything the director appears to demand a little too much flattening of technique, which in the sequences involving David and Marta (Robin Bartlett) leads to increasingly mannered and inscrutable stillness within long takes. It is clear from the beginning why Roth would seek out Franco as a collaborator, as the director has effectively built a film around the British actor’s intuitive immanence and bustling attention to activity. Since his breakthrough in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1983) Roth has operated with a bristling, primeval energy and threat, that has been gradually modulated by a careful attention to practical tasks. Even in his paunchy fifties Roth still exudes many of those boisterous and youthful qualities and Franco’s awareness of them informs much of his film’s ambiguous detailing of David. The professional approach of that character stems from Roth’s complete immersion in activity, whilst the troubling sense that this professionalism masks something far more unsavoury is a mark of those qualities that have the potential for violence or perversion. Whilst not being omnipresent within the frame – Franco frequently chooses to have Roth positioned off-camera within a sequence – Roth assiduously comes to dominate the film, in a mirror of the manner in which he comes to dominate the lives of his patients. What the actor most effectively brings to this role, and something that was almost certainly consciously worked out with the director, is a variety of gestural responses and facial expressions that seem deliberately out-of-place. This approach by Roth helps to maintain the ambiguity of the character and verges on an impenetrability that is suggestive of both an intensely private man, and a potentially characterless cipher. Either way it is a mesmerising performance and is the major reason why the film should be endured.
As the closing credits of Chronic roll a keen-eyed observer can’t help but notice the debt of gratitude Franco gives to fellow Mexican filmmakers Carlos Reygadas and Arturo Ripstein (his son Gabriel is a producer of this film). Within the context of successive generations of challenging Mexican filmmakers both of these figures, with their penchant for cruel and coolly controlling approaches to narrative and character, would seem to be clear influences. However, the thanks given to American filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg seems all the more relevant as Chronic’s elliptical development of narrative and deliberate counterpointing of character details seems indebted to that director’s complex moral and social works, such as Scarecrow (1973) and Street Smart (1987). It is a rather gross misjudgement, or a sign of youthful petulance, that Franco should end this disarming character study with such a relentlessly cruel closing sequence, the shock of which comes at the expense of absolutely undermining all of the work that has come before it. Returning to that initial querying of the Cannes screenplay award, one has to wonder just how exposed the quality of the writing may have been in this film if not for the superlative casting and Roth’s impeccable central turn. If Franco is setting out on an auteurist path it can only be hoped that he builds upon his eye for a performance and tries to curb his enthusiasm for cheap and sadistic shocks.