Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco is obsessed — seemingly at the expense of all other subjects — with how people reconfigure their worldview in the wake of unimaginable tragedies. Michael Haneke is an obvious touchstone, but Franco is more interested in the healing process than he is whatever grim, bourgeois drama caused the wound in the first place.
His debut feature, 2009’s “Daniel & Ana,” watched in nervous horror as two siblings attempted to repair their relationship after being abducted and forced to have sex with one another. “After Lucia,” which won top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, is about a man who’s still reeling from his wife’s sudden death when their daughter becomes the victim of a high school sex tape scandal. “Chronic” may be the most delicate and restrained of Franco’s features to date, but in one key respect it’s also his most ambitious — this time around, every character is forced to process a profound loss of some kind.
Needless to say, “Chronic,” which resolves into a backdoor tribute to hospice workers, isn’t much of a comedy (the almost suffocatingly sober film offers but a single laugh, which is still a record high for Franco). A compellingly muted Tim Roth stars as David, the soft-spoken and shifty kind of man who would never tell you what he does for a living on a first date. We eventually figure out that he’s a nurse, but Franco makes us work for every scrap of information.
Our initial impressions of the guy are wildly conflicting: David is introduced lurking in a parked car, keeping tabs on someone like a stalker. The next time we see him, he’s tending to a sick woman, washing her naked body with a professional’s attention and a partner’s presence of mind. Other people stand just outside the door, afraid to watch. Franco never gives us that option, his static camera refusing to blink or divert its gaze — modesty is the first thing to go out the window when it comes to palliative care, and the achingly authentic “Chronic” never introduces it into the equation. On the contrary, as the film imposes a clinical look at death (after death after death), it probes how people see the world after being forced to stare into the void.
There are no easy answers, and every new detail we learn about David only invites two more questions. David attends the woman’s funeral, suggesting that he develops real feelings for his patients, but why does he refuse to discuss the deceased with a grieving family member who’s desperate for closure? He couldn’t possibly offer more humane treatment to his next customer, a debilitated architect (Michael Cristofer) whose sole remaining joy comes from watching porn on his iPad, but why does he assume the man’s identity at a local bookstore, or pretend to be his patient’s brother so that he can tour a house he once designed? Viewers are eventually provided enough clues to piece together David’s personal history with loss, but the reasons for his behavior do little to explain the goal behind it — maybe he’s just as in the dark about that as we are.
Franco encourages us to be suspicious of David’s motives, but condemns others for doing the same. When the architect’s children find the porn-filled iPad and reflexively sue the nurse for sexual harassment, it’s hard not to feel as though David’s role is more complicated than it first appears — his job isn’t just to be a balm for the suffering of his patients, but also a surrogate for that of their families. Palliative care is as much for the dying as it is for those who love them; everybody needs a place to deposit their pain.
But where does all of that hurt wind up? There are, by one critic’s count, only 97 shots in this 93-minute movie, and each of them feels like it’s the next stop on a circular assembly line of dark thoughts. In that sense, Franco’s spare and methodical script makes “Chronic” feel more like an exorcism story than anything else, and while its patience and plotlessness only make this unflinching film that much harder to endure, each of David’s new patients has a way of reinvigorating the experience; Robin Bartlett, who you might recognize as Lillian Gorfein from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is particularly great as a suicidal woman with metastatic cancer.
No, Franco is never going to make something that’s fun for the whole family, and the abrupt payoff of “Chronic” may not do him much to win any new fans. But this quiet, difficult little movie — so stubbornly opaque that its torpedo of a last shot almost makes it feel as though Franco has been trolling us the whole time — is the rare film that has the courage to stomach the reality of life after death.
“Chronic” opens in theaters on Friday, September 23rd.