In a memorable interview given to George Plimpton, Ernest Hemingway coined the “theory of the iceberg”: a writer can only show a very small part of a story – the rest must necessarily remain hidden, unwritten, and it will be up to the reader’s imagination to try to unveil and make sense of it.
Michel Franco, in Chronic, uses the very same trick, and the result is a cinematic gem. David (Tim Roth) is a fifty-something year-old in-home nurse. He works with terminally ill patients: he lives with them, washes them, feeds them and keeps them company. He performs all the above with a dedication which stands in contrast with the cold relationships they have with their own families. The people David takes care of have been left alone, their relatives do not seem able or willing to deal with their forthcoming deaths, and David ends up filling their absence, turning into the patients’ parent, friend, sibling.
But David too has a heart-breaking story of his own. We know he is hiding a terrible past, but we do not know just how terrible it is. We know he has lost the love of his life, but do not know how. We are told a child of his died very young, but do not know why. We know just as much as the strangers he confesses bits of his life to, only to then question what we are told when he talks to other people and the version changes altogether.
Franco hides the full extent of David’s pain under the drama’s surface, as if part of Hemingway’s iceberg. David’s persona is quite literally built before the audience, but only slowly and partially revealed in its full complexity, so that we are forced to question what is shown on screen and fill David’s silences with our own intuitions. We do not just watch the story unfold, we are called upon to take part in the process.
Tim Roth’s performance is outstanding. There is a memorable scene in which David catches up with his daughter (Sarah Sutherland) over coffee, and she asks him about his late partner. It’s a quasi-silent scene: both are filled with stories to share, but she is way too nervous to begin and he is still too hurt to open up, so they communicate with silences and small gestures, and David’s pauses speak louder than the words he mutters with a broken voice.
In some fundamental sense, Franco wants to do more than just showing David’s suffering – he requires our direct involvement in shaping and crafting the extent of his pain. Chronic’s drama (and David’s) is not merely what gets to be shown on the screen, but what does not, and which we can only picture in our heads.
Cannes chose to award Franco the 2015 prize for best screenplay. And for many good reasons. There are films which are happy simply showing a story on a screen without requiring much from the audience. Chronic does much more than that: it asks us to understand, imagine and shape David’s story. This is why the beauty of Franco’s latest work lingers long after the ending credits.