Director: Michel Franco
Stars: Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett
2 (out of 5) Globes
Like Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman [etc.],” Tim Roth spends the majority of “Chronic” doing mundane work. It’s in the same style, too: Half the running time — a whole two hours shorter than the Akerman — is comprised of long takes with no rush to end, or to literally move. The camera is frozen in place, doing nothing but staring at a fine (and often, but not here, hammy) actor as he plays to nurse to terminally ill patients: giving them modest scrubs or showers; helping them eat; at one point sitting glumly in a park beside a wheelchaired teen who wants nothing to do with him. (“Anything I can get you?” “F—k off.”)
This is a style weird and alienating to most moviegoers but almost painfully familiar to film festival hounds, who get this shtick from an untold number of filmmakers. In a weird turn of events, both sides can be hyper-critical. You can’t, the latter says, just set up a camera, turn it on, paste your shots together and drop the DCP in a festival mailbox; there must be rigor, beautiful framing, a structure and an intent that could never be something as banal as “let’s watch the majesty of life as it happens.”
As such, Michel Franco’s “Chronic” is an odd duck. For one, it’s in English, which is mysteriously rare and maybe even a cause for suspicion. (For some reason, movies that ask you to do little but stare at endless shots of very little seem to work better when you have to do the occasional subtitle-reading. Witness, as it were, past films by Franco, a filmmaker usually based in Mexico, including “After Lucia.”) For another, it’s relatively short. It might even have been made, in part, at least, for a laugh. Case in point: the notorious ending — a spoilerable event that’s either a sick cosmic joke or an admittedly sort of funny dig at movies with lots of ascetic long takes.
But at heart it’s both a long take/master shot grinder and a character study, albeit one filled with scores of big holes. Roth’s David spends most of the movie at work, as a quiet and remote but dutiful, even selfless caretaker. He’ll talk if they want, but he mostly stays busy, doing little tasks in real time. On his off-hours, he’s less stable. He stalks a young woman (Sarah Sutherland), in real life and over Facebook. We’ll soon learn she’s his not-quite-estranged daughter, who’s ecstatic to see him, but he remains a guy who, should he chat with a stranger, will give them biographical details we know are swiped for some reason from various patients.
“For some reason” happens a lot in “Chronic.” Halfway through David is fired from one gig, whose employers claim he sexually harassed his patient, their dying father (filmmaker Michael Cristofer). We did see him let the guy watch porn on his iPad. But did something else happen that Franco decided we shouldn’t see? We never learn the truth, and other situations remain intentionally opaque. And yet we also get the full breadth of his relationship with another dying woman (Robin Bartlett), whose suffering is so intense that she begs him to aid in her taking her own life.
Why show one thing in full and only bits of others? Is Franco trolling us? Whatever he’s doing, his approach doesn’t seem playful, as in the mysteries and obscurities that abound in certain Hong Sang-soo films. It seems strident and combative, as though he was chuckling as we try to piece this film together. If the movie is a parody of long take/master shot cinema, it’s still one that takes death very seriously, more seriously than most, and with a welcome degree of wit. It can boast that it contains one of the great Tim Roth performances. He breaks no sweat playing to the film’s fractured nature, seeming both quietly earnest and quietly off-kilter — a decent man who could also see maybe, perhaps going next level with one of his patients, earning those charges of sexual harassment. Roth makes it all smooth and purposeful. The movie around him is less nimble.