Since the advent of cinema, people have been drawn to the screen by the promise of intimacy: the facial close-up, an overwhelming experience for early movie audiences, allowed them far inside the personal space of a stranger. Mainstream movies tend to celebrate intimacy—that quiet moment with a child or lover that redeems the stress and strain of being an astronaut or a hostage negotiator. But intimacy can also be a terrible burden. In Daniel & Ana (2009), the debut feature of Mexican writer-director Michel Franco, a college student and her younger brother are kidnapped, driven to a deserted house, and forced to copulate for a sex tape. They survive the ordeal, but it leaves them frightened and ashamed, saddled with greater knowledge of each other than any siblings should have.
Franco’s latest feature, Chronic, pushes the burden of intimacy to its extreme. Tim Roth stars as Dave Wilson, a private nurse in southern California who cares for a series of critically and terminally ill clients: a young woman dying of AIDS, an elderly man felled by a stroke, a woman struggling through chemotherapy. Dave ministers to these people gently and patiently, bathing and clothing them. He cleans up their piss and shit and vomit, accepting the awful reality of their bodies even though the patients’ loved ones might recoil. Dave seems almost Christlike, yet there’s something weird going on here: he’s so devoted to his patients that he begins to cross personal boundaries with them, getting himself in trouble professionally. Even as these problems are developing, Franco pulls us deeper into Dave’s past, fostering a greater sense of intimacy with him than we might like and challenging us to shoulder the burden as he does.
One of Franco’s favorite visual motifs is shooting through a door into a lit room, a composition that divides public from private, and often these spaces are bathrooms where Dave tends to his suffering patients. The emaciated Sarah (Rachel Pickup) is introduced in just such a shot, sprawling Pietà-like on a white plastic chair in the shower, her eyes closed and her head resting against the white tile as Dave gingerly soaps and rinses her. Franco lingers over these sickroom scenes, stressing the quiet communion between nurse and patient. Dave dresses Sarah, asking her to raise her arms so he can get a blouse over her head, then kneels down, wraps her arms around his neck, gives her a countdown, and braces her to stand up with him. He’s the consummate caregiver: quiet and steady, with an empathic understanding of his patients’ pain, he makes himself a partner in their performance of simple physical tasks.
That sort of bond must be hard to sever, and once Sarah dies, Dave’s devotion begins to seem more like obsession. Upon hearing the news, he rushes over to her apartment, barges past the neighbor who phoned him, and seals himself inside Sarah’s bedroom to bathe and dress her one last time, raising her legs in the air and wiping them down with a wet cloth. Dave is deeply protective of Sarah’s memory, privileging himself above her loved ones because of his physical intimacy with her. After the funeral, Sarah’s young niece implores Dave to have coffee with her so she can ask him about her aunt. He brushes her off, but that evening, striking up a conversation with a young couple at a bar, he passes himself off as Sarah’s grieving husband, recalling their 21 years of marriage and his many years at her bedside.
Dave may be inserting himself into his patients’ lives, but he’s only filling the breach between them and their family members, some of whom can’t handle the nasty details of physical decay and some of whom just don’t care. When Sarah is visited by her sister, brother-in-law, and nieces, the children are bored and can’t want to leave; ushered out at last, they wave casually at their exhausted aunt, whom they’ll never see again. John (Michael Cristofer), the stroke victim who becomes Dave’s next patient, barks at family members but bonds with his new nurse, who lets him watch porn on a laptop and indulges his salacious train of thought. At one point, when Dave has finished bathing John, the old man’s grown son walks in on them and turns away at the sight of his father’s genitals. Later, after John’s respiration has taken a turn for the worse, his daughter interrupts another private moment between the two men, when John has burst into tears and Dave has enfolded him in an embrace. Franco doesn’t reveal what the daughter whispers in John’s ear to comfort him, but from the stricken expression on his face, you can tell her words have had the opposite effect.
John’s strong rapport with Dave only encourages the nurse to identify with him. After Dave learns that John is an architect with several houses and small buildings to his credit, he loads up on architecture books at a local shop, passing himself off to the clerk as an architect himself. Later Dave shows up at one of the houses John has designed, introduces himself to the owner as John’s brother, and asks if he might have a look around. When his boss asks him why he’s been working extra hours without permission, Dave replies, “John needed me.”
Chronic won the prize for best screenplay at the Cannes film festival in 2015, and for good reason—even as Dave invades his patients’ personal lives, his own past is revealed little by little, through shaded and oblique dialogue. Dave has just returned to the area after a long time away; in the opening sequence he spies on Nadia (Sarah Sutherland), the teenage daughter he hasn’t seen in years, and studies her photos on Facebook. Later, when he shows up at his ex-wife’s door, they speak of a son who died years earlier. “What does Nadia know?” he asks. The wife replies: “About Dan? Everything.” By the end of the movie you can probably piece it all together, but then again, you may not want to. Some things are too private. v