BFI London Film Festival: Chronic

Directed by Michel Franco
Starring Tim Roth, Sarah Sutherland and Robin Bartlett

by Ruth Thomson

In this quietly observed drama by Michel Franco, David (an understated Tim Roth) cares for the chronically, terminally, terribly ill. He bathes, comforts, feeds, and lifts his stricken adult charges with little fuss, going about the business in a clinical methodical way. A good egg by all accounts. Or is he? Why does he spend so much time parked outside someone else’s house? Who is the teenage girl whose Facebook page he pours over in isolation every night? And why does he lie with such ease about his relationship with his clients? Pretending to be the widower of one, and the brother of another?

With minimal scripting and not a whisper of music throughout, the film is strangely flat and unsettling without every really managing to ignite any full throttle tension. At best, it illustrates that first impressions can’t always be trusted, as some of our initial assumptions about the enigmatic David are proved wrong. And particularly in the performances of his patients, Chronic highlights the staggering struggle to maintain dignity in the face of our bodies breaking down on us – regardless of intellect or status. Both Michael Cristofer as John, an accomplished architect rendered useless by a stroke and stifled by his well-meaning family, and Robin Bartlett as Marta, a reserved widow whose chemotherapy cause her to lose control of her bowels, are quietly heartbreaking.

David’s role in both their lives is ultimately essential and anonymous at the same time: as he moves from one client to the next seemingly seeking some kind of meaning in his own life. Although there are allusions to a past familial tragedy we never quite learn enough about him to care, as is proven by the somewhat jaw-dropping ending.

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