When it was announced five months ago that Gaspard Ulliel — the wolfishly handsome beau of films including “A Very Long Engagement”, “Saint Laurent” and “Sibyl” — died suddenly in a freak skiing accident at 37, peopled mourned the world over for one the most charming actors working in contemporary Gallic cinema. With his good-natured, sleepy grin and icy blue eyes that concealed a glint of malice, it made perfect sense in his smattering of sly roles that his trademark dimple was actually, in fact, a scar.
And it’s a perverse coincidence that his final feature film is entirely concerned with our hopelessness in the face of the inevitable onslaught of death. Perhaps talk about Emily Atef’s bleakly funereal “More Than Ever” as an abrupt bookend to Ulliel’s career will overshadow the fact that this is a rare film that allows the cruelty of chronic disease to play out with pessimistic finality, giving space for its subject to be selfish even if that means opting for the cruelest way to say goodbye to those you’re leaving behind. In reality, the cruel twist of fate between star and subject matter is merely an added string in an already well-tuned film about how unbearably ill-equipped we are to say goodbye to those we’re losing too soon.
Vicky Krieps — who, between this and “Corsage”, is emerging as la reine of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard strand — stars as Hélène, a 33-year-old who is terminally ill with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. A transplant with a precarious 50% success rate is possible, but she is terrified of the idea of dying on a hospital bed and losing the last scrap of corporeal dignity she has left. This is much to the chagrin of Ulliel’s Mathieu, her doting, struggling husband, who insists she fights with every scrap of strength to live. With clandestine hand-squeezes at social events and offers to apply his wife’s mascara, he is determined to fight for Hélène when she has no desire to get out of bed in the morning, going about her day in a state of studied, detached lethargy. In rare moments of respite, Mathieu goes to Bordeaux’s techno clubs and dances through the dark, engulfed in the oblivion of being alive without her.
Atef guides this duo through the film like a funeral director, allowing them to amble slowly through the airy runtime as the feeling of dread metastasizes. Hélène is understandably fed up with the whole rigmarole of her impending demise, resigned to Googling dangling thoughts like “what to do when you are dying” instead of facing the friends and family that handle her with kid gloves and empty epithets about bravery and staying strong and not giving up the fight ad nauseam. Her idle doomscrolling leads her to a blog maintained by a similarly chronically ill man named “Mister,” who prefers pictures paired with pithy comments as opposed to Insta-inspo style captions. And that, paired with the fact that she often has escapist daydreams of floating serenely in a quiet sea, leads her to make the lengthy journey to this stranger’s remote home in Norway to figure it all out among pine-green fjords and sparkling lakes.
As “Mister,” or Bent as he is really called, Norwegian actor Bjorn Floberg brings bone-dry humor and no-nonsense clarity to the proceedings, cutting through the potential for overwrought melodrama — even if, ultimately, he perhaps isn’t given enough to do by the script. Krieps, meanwhile, steers clear of the manic pixie dying girl tendency of films like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” or “Babyteeth” in a vulnerable performance with no sparky optimism. She’s determined to cling to the small pleasures she has left, from smoking one of Mathieu’s spliffs to giving him oral despite a sudden coughing spell; hers is an illness that “gets worse until you suffocate,” a fact clearly designated as her rasping breath deteriorates. With trademark stoicism and inscrutable poise, Krieps gives a performance that never tries to extract easy pity from the viewer or reach for low-hanging fruit.
A volcanic argument in the film’s final act feels a little stagey, but otherwise, the tone is one of detached acceptance that feels altogether more realistic. Thankfully, in a decision that elevates the film entirely, Atef bypasses the inevitable funeral and instead closes off with what is surely one of the best sex scenes in recent cinematic memory. It’s a patient, electric, protracted moment that allows Hélène to reconnect with herself and to Mathieu, no longer inhabiting a body wracked by illness but a person capable of tender passion and tactile eroticism. Perhaps it’s a little on the nose to end the film with une petite mort instead of her actual death, but it’s an almost tongue-in-cheek choice that gifts our protagonist the joy and dignity she deserves. Why allow the lasting memory to be of agony when the ecstasy of pleasure is still a viable option even when you’re chronically ill?
And what lingers after the poignant close of “More Than Ever” is that there’s little need to reinvent the wheel when death is so hopelessly quotidian. Isn’t part of our anger and disbelief when it happens that everyone else will one day experience the untenable pain of losing a loved one, rendering our pain entirely unspecial? This is not a film that will bring comfort to the mourning, or reassure those who may be facing the same road ahead. In that sense, perhaps it’s done its job.
“More Than Ever” premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.