A somber, depressing but painfully real look at the difficulty of terminal illness anchored by a terrific turn from Tim Roth.
Terminal illness is a thematic minefield for filmmakers. It’s incredibly hard to nail the reality of life with it and due to this; many end up feeling emotionally manipulative and implausible. We saw the sickly sweetness of The Fault In Our Stars fail to compel us to believe in its main characters and Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 opting to alleviate the subject matter with regular doses of, albeit heartfelt, comedy. Neither is found here in Michel Franco’s quietly superb third feature.
Premiering in Cannes last year, the film follows David (Tim Roth) who works with terminally ill patients, commonly in the later stages of their lives, and forms unique bonds with them due to his effective and passionate attitude to his profession. Outside of his shifts however, his life is sparse and isolated.
If it feels as though that summary of the plot feels like a bare skeleton of a storyline that’s because it is. Chronic is a meditative character study of someone who finds purpose in caring for those who struggle to for themselves.
Roth is fantastic as David, a role that could have easily come across as robotic and charmless but is brought to life by his meticulous understanding of the character. His job is difficult and through his body language, especially his eyes, he portrays the emotional hammering of such a profession. It never becomes clear as to why David is so doggedly committed to helping these people. He conveys an almost sociopathic need to provide and relate to his patients and it is often hinted and shown that he oversteps this line by shutting out their families and building his own life around these dying people. However, the way in which he interacts with them and aids them paints a somber and moving picture.
Franco captures his study with an almost surgical quality. Rarely does the camera move during scenes as we weave between patients and rooms and hospitals. Because of the static and unedited nature of the filming, we are immersed in this almost documentary feel. Hand in hand with this realism comes the decision to stage his film with no soundtrack at all. Instead, we are subjected to everyday sounds such as trees billowing in the wind, passing cars, quiet murmuring. Whilst it doesn’t illicit, say, the masterful hand of Michael Haneke and his understanding of the human emotion, what Franco does brilliantly here is that despite his style, it never becomes uncomfortable or polarising, it makes it all the more real and tragic.
Of course, with the subject matter at hand, the film does not shy away from the distressing nature of life with terminal illness. This does make for some increasingly difficult scenes to sit through. Unfortunately, this might turn people away from experiencing some of the most poignant filming in some time.
What stops Franco’s film from becoming a masterpiece in its subject matter however is that he struggles to end it. At a running time of 89 minutes, it does end strangely abruptly. Then again, once given time to ponder and meditate over what you’ve just experienced, it can be said that life in such conditions does end abruptly and people do not choose when it does.
Chronic (2015), directed by Michel Franco, is distributed in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye. Certificate 15.