Winner of the best screenplay award at Cannes, Chronic is a neat, tidy and patient character study, following David, a carer for chronic patients. Through him, we meet 4 different patients facing the stark reality of their condition – stroke, aids, cancer, cerebral palsy. While we watch their struggles, we get to see the fascinating core of the film is the carer not the patient – David, played by Tim Roth in a rare, understated performance that manages to convey steady kindness with an undertone of menace.
David is most often silent, effacing his own personality in service of his patients. For people who have lost their agency, he becomes an invisible arm for them, empowering them through his service. A lot of time is spent watching David wash his patients, in frank long takes, and he quickly establishes a relationship closer than any family member. David gives the patients space to feel normal again, away from the pity and fuss from their relatives. Revealing more about David feels like a spoiler – discovering his personality, and the subtle strangeness of it, is the key game of the film.
We start to see that David is a little like Zelig, Woody Allen’s chameleon character who can’t help mimicking the people he finds himself in a room with. David adopts aspects of his patients personalities as he tends to them. If they like watching porn, he’ll become more bawdy, if they’re architects, he’ll become an architecture enthusiast and even start exploring the buildings they once built. Outside of caring, he lies compulsively, sometimes adopting the identities of his patients when asked, or talking about them as close friends, wives, family. He has a need to be needed by them, and becomes hurt when he’s not. In this light, his vocation seems an oddly selfish choice.
I recently studied scriptwriting, and one of the most persistent lessons we were told was that plot, and the development of a central question, is the engine of a film. You need a big Act 2 question that’ll keep the viewer hooked in. Chronic’s great strength is that it manages to have such a thin plot, yet still keep the tension running and increasing by focussing on the character. David is the big question of the film, the mystery at its heart. What pleasure does he get in his invisibility? And how far will he go to serve his patients? The film is a slow and measured illumination of David, through his 4 patients. Just when we think we know him, the film throws us a curveball, making us rethink what we’ve learned.
Just like its central character, the style of Chronic is quiet, steady and patient. Michel Franco’s directing is reminiscent of Michael Haneke – there are very long takes of carefully composed shots that make the viewer pay close attention to the routines and rhythms of chronic care. There’s no music, and very sparse dialogue. I blew my nose during one conversation and still amn’t sure I missed a major plot point. So, if you do go, my top tip would be to try and blow your nose during the long bathing scenes which are devoid of dialogue.
Tim Roth’s performance is the standout feature of the film, easily ranking as one of his finest roles. Roth might normally be known to play brash and cocky characters, but here he dials it all back for a largely silent performance. David sometimes feels like a docile robot-helper to his patients, just sitting there beside them holding their hands with the glazed expression of an automaton. While he’s the centre of the film, he’s rarely centre of the frame, appearing as the supporting character to his patients yet still remaining the focus for the viewer. His calmness is evident whether he’s bathing and feeding, or stalking and lying, and the film hinges on the promise of a reveal for this peculiar vacancy in his personality.
My only big quibble with the film is that when the final act arrives, the reveal isn’t all that interesting. Sometimes the build up of mystery is so much more enjoyable than the revelation. Mulling over the answer isn’t half as engaging as the curiosity sparked by the question (on a side note I’d put True Detective up as a prime example of this). After so much build up, with such brilliant austere camerawork and an enigmatic performance – both of which are so full of portent – the answers the film provides feel by-the-numbers for an arthouse film. It’s just a little… well, easy. And then it all leads up to a final shot that you might find either wonderfully thoughtful and philosophical, or just plain yell-at-the-screen stupid. That said, for the central character and performance, and the well-crafted script, Chronic is well worth checking out. It’s just shy of being a little gem of a film, but it’s still a strong, quiet, accomplishment with plenty to admire.
Chronic is released at the IFI cinema on Friday 19th February. Check out the trailer below.
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