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Vicky Krieps embodies resistance. In her breakthrough role, as Alma in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017), she remained steadfast and uncowed in the face of her fashion-designer lover’s bullying; in Corsage (2022), her Empress Sisi strains with all her might against the niceties and obligations of court life. Though Emily Atef’s More Than Ever doesn’t go in for the grand cinematics of those two films, it offers her another opportunity to incarnate that struggle in the figure of Hélène, a young woman diagnosed with a rare lung disease. Making up the backbone of this sensitive character study are Hélène’s headstrong journey to commune with nature rather than seek treatment, and her tender but inevitably fraught relationship with her husband, Matthieu (Gaspard Ulliel, whose tragic early death last year casts an unfortunately metatextual pall over the whole enterprise – of which more later).

As the film opens, the pair, who live in Bordeaux, are due to attend a dinner party with friends. Already Atef’s writing and command of character are visibly strong, lithely depicting the intimacy between the couple as well as Matthieu’s mildness and solicitude towards his partner, and introducing the question of Hélène’s illness in a public sphere, where her spiky candour conflicts with the prevailing bonhomie. Atef’s ear for dialogue is very finely tuned: the conversations between these friends seem lived-in, even as they must telegraph so much narrative; and though Hélène’s behaviour spoils the party, the film shies away from the sort of histrionics you might expect. It lays the groundwork for what is to come: Hélène travelling further and further from society, both figuratively and literally, in order to face her plight alone, and not have to give voice to it in terms that are seemingly as painful to her as the ordeal itself.

But on the heels of the impressive opening comes the film’s least successful segment. Hélène consults with physicians, argues with her mother via Zoom, and seeks out alternative treatments online, leading her to find a strange figure named Bent, who offers sufferers a stay at his countryside shack in Norway. Hélène feels an odd kinship with this brusque figure, who doesn’t condescend to her. These scenes are necessary in pushing the narrative ahead, but there is a slacking of rhythm here, at a time when the story could afford to leap ahead and display the grace and freedom of which Atef is capable.

That finally happens when, turning her back on Bordeaux, and – for an indeterminate period – on her life with Matthieu, Hélène sets off to meet Bent, a strange figure she’s met on the internet, and stay with him in his cabin in Norway, where she can take ice baths and long forest walks. Some of More Than Ever’s core strengths are most evident in these scenes, which beautifully capture Krieps’s odd combination of vulnerability and strength: here, her pale body makes battle with the elements and with its own fallibility, against landscapes depicted with an unsentimental eye for beauty.

Matthieu eventually comes to visits Hélène, and it is here that More Than Ever is tinctured, almost distractingly, by the audience’s knowledge that Ulliel died shortly after filming; though the film deserves to be considered on its own terms, it’s impossible to watch this consideration of mortality, in which the actor is so constant and true, without mourning his loss.

Ulliel is present mostly in a supporting capacity, but displays the full extent of his talent in the film’s conclusion – where Atef, too, reaches new heights. There has already been a brilliantly staged but abortive sex scene between Hélène and Matthieu early in the film, showing not only the attraction and understanding between them, but the mounting frustration of Hélène at her body’s frailty. Now, in Norway, with the two characters set on heartbreakingly different paths, a new attempt at sex is freighted with even more meaning, emanating in a protracted and brilliant, erotic, achingly sensitive scene that shows the care between them in so many touching nuzzles and kisses, caresses, murmurs. Filmed at breathtakingly close quarters, it feels fresh, right and real.

Atef’s hand wobbles at times – the dialogue occasionally slips into melodrama, becoming too schematic. Particularly in that dour second act, More Than Ever’s rhythm sometimes starts to drags, becoming almost stifled by Hélène’s all-consuming death drive, and not providing enough action to counterbalance its talkiness. Ultimately, though, Krieps’s vital performance and Ulliel’s steady support, guided by Atef’s consummate delicacy and intelligence, win out.

More Than Ever is in UK cinemas now.