I must come back to Chronic. A friend mentioned to me another film directed by Franco: After Lucia. I viewed it immediately and the experience urged me to revisit Chronic and analyse it.
I found that the two films had strong structural similarities.
They share the unsettling characteristic of using one tragic event in the past life of an inscrutable protagonist and then presenting us with shocking and distressing images that may or not be related to this past. In After Lucia, realistic images of bullying, abuse, rape in underage school youth overshadow the grief of a man and young girl after the death of their wife and mother. In Chronic the important issues of terminally ill children management and assisted suicide are transformed into a voyeuristic take on palliative care of bodies.
There is consensus about the ambiguity of the last scene in Chronic: was it an accident or suicide? But I found in my analysis that ambiguity is the mode of this film. Ambiguity in the story, the plot and the mise-en-scene. This permits viewers to interpret the film differently. My partner came out of the cinema saying “What is the point of it”? I wondered “Why am I so involved and what are the components of the film that disturbed me so?”. Most reviews were very favourable with a minority finding it manipulative and distasteful.
A middle-aged man has in the past helped his terminally ill son to die. He left his wife and daughter and moved to another town where he works as a palliative carer. A young woman he cares for dies of Aids. The family of the next patient accuses him of sexual harassment. He goes back to his home town where he renews contacts with his wife and daughter. The wife had remarried and divorced after four years. His daughter is not studying medicine as she had led him believe. He meets up with an old colleague and takes on the care of his terminally ill sister. She rejects him when he refuses to help her die. He changes his mind and injects her with a lethal dose of medicine. He takes on the respite care of a young wheelchair-bound youth.
He goes for a jog and gets hit by a car.
What we do not know: We have no information about the ages of his son or daughter at the tragic event. Was David a carer before the death of his son or did he take up this career as a result of him helping him to die? What is the time elapsed between the death of his child and the events of the film? Was the ending an accident or a suicide?
The film is part a suspense thriller about a traumatised man, part a realistic account of caring physically for the dying, and part about helping suffering terminal patients to die. (No special case of a father killing his son is stressed )
The ambiguity of the title sequences is clear. A point of view shot through the windscreen of a car shows us a woman getting into a car and driving off followed by the car. A camera movement then changed the point of view to show the profile of the driver of the following car. Cut to the back of a man viewing on a computer a series of photos of a female at different ages.
PLOT and MISE-EN-SCENE
SUSPENSE: The suspense comes from the fact that we are only told 50 minutes into the film why David, the inscrutable protagonist is so morose most of the time. We reconstruct his life when he meets his daughter and ex-wife. Until then there are many ambiguities about his character and motivation. David exhibits a peculiar behaviour where he invents a different self connected to his patients: as a grieving husband, an architect, the brother of an architect. Some reviewers interpreted this as the behaviour of a stalker, a psychopath.
CARE: The element of caring is concentrated in the first 50 minutes of the film. It seems that the very well researched realistic treatment of the physical and intimate care is the component of the film that impressed the reviewers the most. Indeed these images are shocking.
Sarah: It is difficult to erase from one’s memory the emaciated body of Sarah a pale young woman, eyes shut leaning passively on the wall of the shower. Although we hear the sound of a shower her body is soaped and rinsed tenderly by the carer with a flannel that is squeezed periodically. This opening scene lasts a long 1 minute and 40 sec. Ambiguity again when David prepares Sarah for a family visit. Two holds used to get Sarah from a sitting position to a standing one are used. They look like a hug. In a close reading of this procedure a very brief – maybe subliminal – move of David’s head towards Sarah’s neck can be detected. Ambiguity again when David enquires secretly on the phone about test results and then dismisses Sarah’s family.
The ablutions of John the architect are slightly less objectionable as he is washed under the shower and given the shower head to wash his private parts. This is also a long take of 1min 2 sec. There is a bed bath scene later on. David shares with his patient the view of pornography on a tablet. He offers John a gift. A scene difficult to interpret is one where John is suffering an attack that is impossible to diagnose by viewers. It is not a breathing difficulty that we have seen him suffer in a previous brief scene, not an epileptic attack. Heavy breathing and grunts are emitted by John while David holds him in a tight embrace difficult to get out of until a climax. What kind of attack is this? It is witnessed by John’s daughter and may or not be the reason for David being dismissed on grounds of sexual harassment. The reason given for the sacking is that John had an erection under the shower. This is not seen by viewers. Ambiguity again.
The last scenes of ‘care’ are the relationship with Martha in the second part of the film. She is presented as a determined woman who knows what she needs – a driver. She suffers from terminal cancer. She and David sit at a distance from each other on a sofa, at home, in the waiting rooms or at the hairdresser. She declares “We do not need to talk”. But in two episodes the relationship changes. In the first sequence, Martha vomits. David proceeds to give her comfort “it is the chemo”, takes her clothes off and cleans her up. In the second the same emotion of disgust is raised in the audience by the shots of Martha who has soiled herself and is being cleaned in the bathroom. We only see the back of her naked body with her soiled backside and legs while David cleans her up. The sequence lasts 40 sec.
ISSUES OF ASSISTED DYING
The second part of the film is introduced with a long car drive ending with the same stalking footage as the title sequences. Only this time we are shown that the stalked woman is David’s daughter Nadia who he has followed into her campus. Their hug of reunion lasts 30 seconds and we are reminded of the holds with Sarah. We are given the information about David’s role in the death of his son in dribs and drabs. He enquires from his wife about her life and then about how much Nadia knows about Dan the son: “Everything” she says. The only time David expresses distress and psychological pain is in the later scene where he cries and seems to request from his daughter approval of his action. It is only then that we can infer that he helped Dan to die.
In the 3 mins 30 sec scene of the vomit, the scene with the longest dialogue, the son’s death is articulated by Martha who researched David before employing him. Her wish to die is expressed frankly. “Do you want to have a shower” “No I want to die”. Here we are also introduced to yet another issue when she says that her niece had an abortion, the baby was found to be unwell, her niece did the right thing.
After a visit to the doctor who informs Martha that the cancer has spread and after the diarrhoea episode, Martha has taken the decision of refusing further therapy and asks David to help her die as he did his son. In the night David hears her crying. The next day he informs her that he will not do it. At his next visit he sees that her rooms are being cleared up. He decides to help her.
The fatal injection deliberately executed with 5 changes of ampoules takes 3 mins. It is bizarre to see the changes of ampoules being executed to avoid contamination with a deliberate disinfection of the syringe at each change. A way to stress the determination, to make us uncomfortable?
In his next job he has to look after a disabled youth who tells him to ‘f… off ’.
He goes for a jog and the sound of a collision leads us to believe without evidence that he has died by accident or intention.
I decided to explore my own reactions so different from the majority of reviewers. It was a very difficult close reading to undertake and not complete in all the details. The jump cuts, the long takes paired with the withholding of information, gave me the impression of being very expertly manipulated. The long takes of the cleaning of bodies, openly express the dirtiness of the dying body. Of Sarah’s dead body: ‘She is dirty’. The change of Martha from a competent independent woman to a soiled backside needing David’s attention annoyed me. The unexplained dismissal of Sarah’s family and the sexual connotations and complicity of David and John against his family were unwarranted. Neither is his lack of communication with other carers and his need to be the sole carer. What is clear is the expert well researched way of dealing with terminal and disabled patients bodies but with no insight into the wider context, the social elements, the difficulties and rewards of the role.
Briefly it is impossible for me to understand David’s character and motivations, or to identify or empathise with him. The shock effect of certain scenes obliterate Roth’s subtle fleeting expressions of inner life so praised by the reviewers: the silent pensive scenes, the slight smiles.
For me the use in films of highly emotional tragic events of life, like the death of a child, terminal illness, abortion, care of the dying, assisted suicide, ought not to be treated without sensitivity and honesty. This film in its ambiguities and without insights or respect has neither.