In a year the Cannes Film Festival has been all but universally roasted for its dubious inclusions in the Official Competition, Michel Franco’s Chronic is handily the worst.
David (Tim Roth), a bedside home nurse for terminally ill patients, is a strange character. While apparently devoted to his patients, he appears not to have any close, meaningful relationships. He is also a compulsive liar: after Sarah (the first patient he treats throughout the film) dies from AIDS-related complications, he goes to a bar that evening, and a couple he meets asks him if he is married. He proceeds to explain that his wife, Sarah, has died from AIDS, and uses the details of this patient’s life as a means of adding weight to his own. Once he starts to care for John, a stroke victim who spews expletives at his family and spends the rest of his time watching pornography that he calls “art,” David lies that he is the brother of this former architect, as he visits a bookstore to research his work.
After nursing John for what seems like a week (the film’s pacing is unclear about how much time has passed), he is sat down by his agency, and told that John’s family wants to sue him for sexual harassment. They cite an iPad full of porn, David’s insistence on sending his co-workers home so he can work double shifts, and an instance where John had an erection as David bathed him as their reasons for believing that David is sexually manipulating John. The film takes no definitive stance on whether or not he is guilty of these accusations, though there is one shot where, as he showers John, his gaze focuses on John’s genitals longer than would be appropriate.
Told not to contact or visit John’s family anymore, he reunites with a former colleague who refers him to Martha (Robin Bartlett), a woman in her sixties who is undergoing chemotherapy and needs a nurse who can taxi her to her treatments. When they meet, she wonders why he is willing to assist her for such little pay, and he explains that he was let go from his previous position. After taking her on a few outings to see her doctor, as they sit on her couch and watch some television, she vomits all over herself (a symptom of the chemotherapy). While he removes her shirt and cleans her up, with her arms covering her breasts, she tells him she is aware that he is being sued for sexual harassment. She continues to reveal that she knows that his son died a few years ago, and without stating it explicitly, she implies that she also knows he assisted in euthanizing him.
Before long, Martha is back at her doctor, and her prognosis is negative. In spite of undergoing treatment, her cancer has metastasized, and she is encouraged to suffer another round of chemotherapy, though that is likely not going to save her. Martha is tired; she just wants to die, and is deliberate in her pleas for David to assist in her suicide.
Michel Franco is meticulously inclusive of every in-vogue, clichéd characteristic of an emerging “New Austerity” movement. The entirety of the film is alternately shot in artless static medium and long shots, not one beat of extra-diagetic usage of music plays in the film, and its actors utter nothing but deadpan, monotonous deliveries of its sparing dialogue. None of these are inherently wrong stylistic choices, but the absence of any tension to punctuate its misery only fosters apathy, and is just simply sadistic. Worst of all, as if his chosen formalism were not bad enough, is that his depiction of his characters’ treatment is completely sanitized of any empathy or human emotion.
If the extreme detachment of Franco’s film is unintentional, this is, at best, incompetent filmmaking that has nothing to say. But it seems more likely that Chronic exists solely to exalt utter nihilism (a concept still less vacuous than this) for the sake of provocation. And if that is his vision, then his decision to embrace astringence in his analysis of such sensitive subject matter is outrageously offensive and infuriatingly despicable.