Vicky Krieps gives a remarkable lead performance in Emily Atef's layered, psychologically rich exploration of life and death
As a director, Emily Atef is particularly good at filming introspection and articulating the otherwise ineffable traumas that grip her female protagonists. Following the dying, hopeless romanticism of 2018's 3 Days in Quiberon, now comes More Than Ever – a film which is also the German-French-Iranian filmmaker’s French language debut – crowned with a show-stealing performance by Vicky Krieps. Hélène (Krieps) has been happily married for a while, but a new and grave challenge will put to the test not only the relationship with her husband Mathieu (Gaspard Ulliel), but the connection she has with herself.
The fact that a rare, terminal lung disease is slowly eating away Hélène’s time on this Earth, makes her jittery, anxious, and combative – the reminiscence of a glowy, bubbly persona dimmed by the turmoils of everyday life. Krieps’ marvellous performance mixes heaviness – in the posture and bodily movements – as a result of guilt and physical debilitation, with the quiet stubbornness of a woman who’s never before put herself first. Early in the film, all the clues point towards her gradual detachment, but the way it plays out signals that the depths of emotional distress are too profound to be communicated, even with your closest ones.
While she pushes Mathieu away, Hélène forms a bond with an online blogger whose accounts of living as a terminal patient bring her some solace. Sharing the most personal of experiences – the process of dying – with someone is portrayed as both an allure and a risk, as the protagonist decides to leave Bordeaux for Norway, where she meets Mister (Bjørn Floberg) himself. But this is not a story about a woman leaving a man for another man – not romantically, not even emotionally. If Hélène is choosing someone, she is choosing herself.
Yves Cape (cinematographer for the likes of Claire Denis, Bertrand Bonello, and Michel Franco) captures the stunning beauty of Norwegian landscapes with a slight trace of claustrophobia, mirroring Hélène’s own decreasing ability to breathe. Relationship to nature does not offer a sure path to convalescence, and on a few occasions, the viewer finds themselves confronted with near-death episodes that all take place out in the open. But this notion that everything is equally dangerous to an ill person is exactly what Hélène revolts against in the first place and the backdrop only strengthens the main character’s conviction that she must persevere, sometimes foolishly convinced, that inner peace is an attainable goal before she breathes her last.
The fact that it took a whole decade from the film’s conception to its premiere in Cannes begs the question why is it still so difficult to fund psychologically rich, explorative films about female experiences, sometimes as liminal as death. And Emily Atef’s film deserves the highest praise for telling a complex, layered story about the soul-searching of a woman, without ever becoming circular, self-referential, or self-indulgent.
More Than Ever is a film about relations, interiorised and exteriorised, to people, to environments, to oneself, to living and dying. And if it’s a cliche that one should strive to live well – as contemporary wellness culture preaches – it is at least equally important to learn how to die well, too. There’s nothing controversial about that, just the raw beauty of all you’re ready to leave behind.
More Than Ever was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 20 January.Where to watch