A dour and withholding character study, Michel Franco’s Chronic invites more questions than it’s willing to answer. The film has no score and precious little camera movement. That camera usually sits a foot or two off the ground, at a safe distance from David (Tim Roth) and the terminally ill patients he cares for in their last days. D.P. Yves Cape uses long lenses that crucially foreshorten that distance, enhancing the fragility of these bodies even as Franco encourages us to view them with a more clinical detachment.
Franco only gradually divulges David’s profession as a palliative care nurse, allowing us to concoct misguided theories about the man’s psyche. The film begins with a lengthy, single-take shot of surveillance, followed by a scene of David scrolling through online photos of a young woman, Nadia (Sarah Sutherland), he appears to be stalking. Shades of Caché give way to pretensions of Amour as David’s attention becomes devoted to caring for an AIDS victim, Sarah (Rachel Pickup). Her family members unhelpfully hover around them as David feeds and showers Sarah. As remarkably still shots of struggling bodies accumulate, David’s identity remains elusive, and Franco leaves ample space for speculation. Is this dying woman David’s wife? Has he had an affair with the woman he’s stalking?
Some truths emerge as other questions linger, and Chronic becomes less about death and dying than about who takes care of us while we’re alive. David’s work, it becomes clear, is a palliative for his evident loneliness. At a bar, he erroneously tells an engaged couple that he’s a widower, and his sketchy familial relationships only become slightly clearer when it’s revealed that the girl he’s been stalking is his daughter, who cautiously welcomes him back into her life. An untimely death has caused a rupture in their relationship, but in his professional work, death can be treated like little more than an unwelcome nuisance. The film comes to follow David as he’s hired to care for two subsequent patients, an architect, John (Michael Cristofer), dealing with the aftermath of a stroke and a woman, Martha (Robin Bartlett), losing her will to fight cancer. Both patients resent how their families react to their illnesses, and turn to David for companionship.
The most interesting wrinkles in Chronic occur when David’s thirst for intimacy warps relationships otherwise marked by the nurse’s diligence and professionalism. Like most of Franco’s film, Roth’s performance is humorless and excessively mannered, but the actor’s physicality speaks loudly. Shoulders slumped forward, David walks like a desiccated husk of a man, but with patients he moves with alacrity and sensitivity. He indulges the stroke victim’s desire to watch pornography, and has to grapple with the cancer patient’s interest in euthanasia. When David is away from work, he continues to behave strangely, posing as the architect at a local bookstore.
A character can be odd without being a creep, but Franco treats this like a distinction without a difference, doubling down on depictions of David’s mild sociopathic tendencies after he’s served with a sexual harassment lawsuit. This development is briefly compelling, until it becomes clear that Franco isn’t interested in locating the truth in his characters.
Chronic passes itself off as an unflinching portrait of the nearly dead and those who care for them, but the film’s elliptical scenes and uncertain chronology foster doubt and forestall intimacy at almost every turn. Like the bodies he bathes and wipes, David comes to seem more like a sad sculpture than a human being. Who would he become if he didn’t have anyone to care for? It’s a question Franco can only cast leering aspersions about, until Chronic’s startling finale answers it with an ugly, cynical thud.