“The living cannot understand the dying.”
These rather poignant words are spoken to Hélène (Vicky Krieps) by a voice from her computer. Belonging to a blogger she has just started following online, but who refuses to show his face, Hélène finally feels understood.
Hélène suffers from a devastating illness affecting her lungs. A doctor tells her she’s eligible for a double lung transplant but warns of the risk: only 50% of those who survive the procedure are still alive after three years.
They’re sobering odds. Hélène’s husband, Mathieu (the late Gaspard Ulliel), is ecstatic that there’s now a viable treatment option, but Hélène remains sullen. Even if she gets the life-saving surgery, she might die.
So she does what any reasonable person does; gets on a train to Norway. She connects with the aforementioned blogger, known online as Mister, and goes to stay with him. She’s expecting a dark and brooding man of her age, but is met with a much scruffier and older man.
The two quietly strike up a friendship as Hélène tries to come to terms with her mortality and her sense of self, which has been drastically altered post-diagnosis. Once presumably a lively young woman, Hélène now gets exhausted and out of breath during sex. Trying to initiate oral sex with her husband, she quickly needs extra oxygen, unable to follow through on the sense of passion that has taken over her.
Much like Hélène’s sexual urges, More Than Ever is an overwhelming film. It may not have big bursts of emotion, but it gets its message across. Director Emily Atef, who co-wrote the script with Lars Hubrich, gently examines Hélène’s conditions with kindness, but never reaches for sensationalism.
Krieps, guided by Atef’s direction, provides a performance that isn’t always easily digested. Hélène, by all accounts, is a frustrating, flawed human being, but that’s exactly what makes More Than Ever so compelling in its better moments.
This isn’t a story about someone swooping in and saving Hélène; this is a story about navigating exceedingly difficult circumstances and how long-term illness changes what marriage and intimacy looks like.
Ulliel, who tragically lost his life in a skiing accident in January 2022, is just as good as Krieps here. This is undoubtedly a film about Hélène, but Atef gracefully also extends her empathy to Mathieu. He, too, is facing Hélène’s illness and its effects on their marriage. Ulliel and Krieps have tangible, authentic chemistry. Their marriage feels lived-in, worn even, in the best possible way.
Filmed in Norway, Yves Cape’s cinematography captures the vastness and staggering beauty of the landscape. Yet, there’s a sense that More Than Ever is a little too understated for its own good. It implies rather than states, but fails to say anything particularly original or unique about illness.
A closer, more probing approach would have benefited Atef’s film. While it never fully resorts to romanticising death, Atef seems to have taken the easy way out, never really challenging the audience’s ideas of death.
More Than Ever will open in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on Friday 20th January 2023