Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘More Than Ever’ is a Textured Character Study

Director: Emily Atef
Writers: Emily Atef, Lars Hubrich, and Josune Hahnheiser
Stars: Vicky Krieps, Gaspard Ulliel, Bjørn Floberg

Synopsis: Hélène and Mathieu have been happy together for many years. The bond between them is deep. Faced with an existential decision, Hélène travels alone to Norway to seek peace and meet a blogger she found on the internet.

For many writers, terminal illnesses only serve as a source of dramatic tension when they can provide a fatalistic ending to a story that wouldn’t be quite as romantic if it concluded with two lovers walking off into the sunset together. Teenage girls have spent decades lusting after Byronic heroes who suffer from mysterious illnesses, so it’s only natural that most filmgoers have an idealized vision of what life as the victim of a terminal illness is like. It’s all tearful deathbed confessions and intense declarations of love. If you throw a loving, supportive husband into the mix and set the story in a series of picturesque locations, you can expect that certain viewers might start to get the wrong idea. 

Emily Atef’s More Than Ever (2022) is no Camille (1936) but it also refrains from being the anti-melodrama that one might expect it to be. It dispenses with many of the tropes that we associate with the ‘sick girl’ genre but it doesn’t necessarily play out as Love Story (1970), as reimagined by the Dardenne brothers. When approaching this sort of material, which has traditionally been the stuff of sappy melodrama, directors tend to employ a visual style that provides an obvious counterpoint to the content of the narrative. Atef is confident enough to avoid obviously signaling that this isn’t your grandmother’s four-hanky picture. Her exploration of one woman’s struggle with major existential questions is absent of the sort of art school affectations that typically weigh down this sort of genre experiment. This is a full-throated melodrama that tackles weighty issues head-on and it’s all the better for it.

We get an inkling of what Atef is working towards early on, when we drop into the film’s narrative at a surprisingly late point in the game. Hélène (Vicky Krieps), is introduced as a successful young urbanite who maintains a stable, loving relationship with her husband Matthieu (Gaspard Ulliel). Their comfortable lives are thrown into turmoil when Hélène learns that she suffers from terminal lung disease. Matthieu tries his hardest to meet her on her level and relate to her struggles but Hélène comes to feel that she needs to get away from everything and everyone she’s ever known. She begins to interact with Mister (Bjørn Floberg), a Norwegian blogger who suffers from a terminal disease and ends up traveling to Norway to live with him. Matthieu agrees to this arrangement, on the condition that he will still be able to contact and visit her. However, Hélène feels herself drifting further and further away from the people that she knew in her previous life and begins to question whether she wants to cut off contact with Matthieu altogether. 

This is one of those films that subtly advances a mildly provocative thesis statement. Our heroine endures grief and trauma while wrestling with the knowledge that there’s no way to escape from the fact that she’s dying. The finality of this statement is almost impossible to come to terms with, so she starts to address the problems in her life through a utilitarian lens. As time goes on, we see her compartmentalizing her emotions and treating those who are close to her like pawns on a chessboard. One naturally assumes that she is attempting to limit the amount of damage that her eventual death will cause, but there is a darker undercurrent to her attempts to organize the final months of her life down to the nth degree. She is convinced that she is taking control of her life and regaining the sense of independence that she lost when those around her began to treat her like an invalid. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement that she feels when she starts to put her life back in order but, as the film comes to a sudden, unexpected close, you are left with plenty of questions about the toll that Hélène’s actions could take on her mental health. 

This is just one of many ways in which this thoughtful drama creeps up on you. Atef’s generous, carefully controlled style of direction helps to bring out the best in both Krieps and Ulliel, while also introducing unexpected tonal shifts into the progression of the narrative. There isn’t one flashy showpiece that serves as a selling point for this quiet, emotionally restrained film but it’s strong enough to stand on its own terms. It’s the sort of finely observed, textured character study that tends to fly under the radar but it should find an audience among fans of European art cinema. 

Grade: A-

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