The winner for Un Certain Regard, the Cannes Film Festival’s second-most prestigious competition, will be announced Saturday. And if what has happened to 2012 winner Michel Franco (for After Lucia) is any indication, that filmmaker could be in for some big things ahead. Franco, just three years later, is in the main Competition — for which awards will be handed out in a glamorous televised ceremony Sunday — with his quite remarkable new movie Chronic. And in a way, he owes this all to actor Tim Roth, who was the President of the 2012 Certain Regard jury and was so blown away by Franco’s film that he actually sought him out. They talked for hours at the awards afterparty, one thing led to another, and now they are doing several movies together including Chronic, in which Roth plays a nurse working with terminally ill patients. “After Lucia knocked me sideways, completely devastated me,” Roth said. “And the entire jury agreed , so he ended up getting the Certain Regard prize for that. I then asked what he was doing next, and he said he had this idea, and I said make it a male nurse (instead of female) and I am in. That was it. There wasn’t a script. We kind of did it there and then in Cannes.”
For Franco, winning in Cannes also meant winning an Oscar-nominated leading man for his film. He’s appreciative. “For me, Cannes has really been about cinema in the deepest meaning of what cinema is. Cannes has been very important in my life in that way,” Franco told me in a joint interview with Roth on Friday afternoon after the press screening of Chronic. At first, according to the director, Roth wasn’t the obvious choice, even though he did give him that prize. “I was lucky to meet Tim after the awards ceremony, and we had a few drinks,” Franco said. “He has a very diverse body of work, but I guess if I had only seen him in those films I might not think he would fit this the perfect way he did. But since we were talking one on one, there was something in his eyes, something deep and sad, some quality that could only come across in this way when we were sitting together. It made total sense to me that he would be the perfect nurse in my film.” The filmmaker added that he got the idea for Chronic in 2010 when his grandmother got sick and had to have nursing care.
It isn’t just playing a male nurse that makes this an extraordinary acting opportunity for Roth, who I think has never been better. The veteran actor is a revelation, completely immersing himself and inhabiting the role of David, a man with a unique talent for helping others in their most difficult hours but incapable of helping himself in many ways. The story is intense, spare and uncompromising. I found this to be a haunting movie, one you keep thinking about. It’s also quiet and deliberate, perhaps making it a tougher sale for buyers (Wild Bunch is handling). But in my opinion, a smart distributor could take this and get some awards action going for Roth and two of his patients, played by Michael Cristofer as a stroke victim and Robin Bartlett as a cancer victim going through gut-wrenching chemotherapy. There have been a lot of fine performances on view at Cannes this year, but I promise you there is none better than those in Chronic. The performances of the patients are so real that I initially thought they might have been actual patients and not actors. The large amount of research Roth says he did with real male nurses paid off. His performance is completely authentic in every way, but the character’s backstory makes this much more than a clinical look at this profession. “As he is going through his life, he is just dipping into the end of people’s existence,” Roth said. “He just keeps hitting them at the most awful point possibly of their lives. And meanwhile, he’s dealing with his own tragedies.” The way Franco brings in David’s story is beautifully laid out and just unfolds on the viewer.
In some ways, I thought of the 1968 Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer that Columbia released. It has a similar structure and quietly troubled character in the lead. It was not successful when it came out because the movie, based on a John Cheever short story, was challenging stuff. In those days major studios were backing tough, personal dramatic projects like that, but now they wouldn’t know what to do with a film like Chronic. It is so much more difficult for indie filmmakers, but Roth, who also has an executive producer credit on the film, is putting his weight behind it to make a difference. “This morning (with the first press screening) was the terrifying moment when you guys (critics) were sitting there watching it,” Roth said. “We got through that. We got some good (reviews) and some bad ones, but that’s just the way it goes. But it wasn’t a blood fest. We broke our way through, and now the rest is whatever happens, happens.” Franco added that the only thing certain is that they are going to make more movies together. They’ve already shot two.
Franco is really one to watch. Six years ago he came to Cannes with his first film, Daniel And Ana, in the Directors’ Fortnight competition. Three years later he moved up to Un Certain Regard, and now he’s playing the big house with a Friday night Competition premiere of Chronic. “I really liked Fortnight,” Franco said, “but I knew nothing about Cannes and remember looking at the people going into the main theater (Grand Theatre Lumiere in the Palais) and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s Cannes. I’m not part of that. And I will never be.’ I’m not a negative person, I’m just objective. I mean, the big guys are there. So I have come a long way, and I am proud and I’m happy and I’m celebrating, and we’re sharing it. It’s fantastic. It’s the happiest day of my life. I just care too much about my work.”