66th BFI London Film Festival: More Than Ever and Last Flight Back

Today’s sojourn through the virtual releases of the 66th BFI London Film Festival is characterized by two films, both screened in the ‘Love’ section, with another particular common theme. Emily Atef’s European drama More than ever and Ondi Timoner’s personal documentary Last return flight both focus intensely on mortality, terminal illnesses, end-of-life care, and the right to choose how we leave the world.

More than ever (dir. Emily Atef, France)

Anchored as it is by a typically phenomenal performance from Vicky Krieps (who also directed Bodice at the prize for the best film of the festival), More than ever is slow, uneven, meandering, contrived and sometimes frustrating and redundant, but also poignant, mature, tragic, romantic and sometimes extremely powerful. It’s far from a bad movie and often looks strikingly like a great one, but the dramatic force it too often seeks eludes it as it pursues its thin, overstretched, one-note narrative.

Krieps plays Helene, a woman who has been diagnosed with a lung disease whose only salvation may be a risky, unguaranteed, and only 50% successful operation. If she is to die, Hélène does not wish to do so in a hospital bed or in the operating room, so she is reluctant to accept the treatment. Her illness has also settled between her and her husband Matthieu (Gaspard Ulliel, for whom this will be his last published work since he himself unfortunately died in January of this year) whose constant worry has become suffocating. For Hélène, it becomes increasingly clear that in order to find peace, dying is something she must do alone, on her own terms.

Hélène’s desire for space, independence and solitude in her final days is something much easier for audiences to understand than for Matthieu, who warily combats it at every step. The most articulate moments between them are exceptionally powerful, and Krieps can once again show just what an emotionally shrewd performer she can be (when not being directed by M Night Shyamalan). The last moments of the film are superb and the scenes where she struggles to explain her position to Matthieu are heavy, touching and easy to tell. Ulliel has fewer opportunities as an emotionally charged, trying-to-be-supportive spouse, but he musters enough chemistry in a short time and it’s weird to watch such scenes posthumously. Like many romances, I can’t help but think theirs suffers from the lack of a honeymoon. We don’t get many clues as to what they were like before Hélène’s illness separated them, a problem with the film that becomes particularly apparent when she claims that being with him reminds them of the life they had. she had with him and never will. Again.

It’s not like more time couldn’t have been spent on their life together, as the two-plus hour runtime of More than ever moves at an often icy pace whenever the two are separated. Looking for people who might see her point of view, Helene finds Bent (Bjorn Floberg), a Norwegian artist who shares photographic ideas about his own battle with cancer. In search of an attentive ear, she turns to him, in a chain of events as thankless as it is artificial. Drifting off to Norway gives the film some pretty scenery and the chance for Helene to gain some perspective, but despite Floberg’s performance, the addition of Bent to the cast doesn’t do much for the film’s growth.

Apart from a few striking scenes between Hélène and Mathieu, More than ever sorely lacking in momentum or inspiring energy. A slow pace doesn’t have to be a bad thing if we’re constantly getting insightful and fleeting details to ruminate over, but More than ever offers a menu with little food for thought. Krieps, Ulliel and Floberg do their best to give their characters inner life – it’s really hard to overstate how brilliant Krieps is – but they struggle to find things to do beyond hashing out the same. debates in increasingly exhausted tones. We feel for them, but their relationship is rarely as compelling as our hearts tell us it should be, with their anemic history leaving you craving stimulation, structure, and closure.

Last return flight (dir. Ondi Timoner, USA)

A very different experience is offered by Last return flight, a documentary about the last two weeks of the life of Eli Timoner, founder of the Air Florida airlines who lived the last forty years of his life partially paralyzed by a stroke and ultimately chose to end his life at the age of ninety-two. This process was documented by his youngest daughter Ondi, a documentary filmmaker, and edited into this film.

Contrary to More than ever‘s Matthew, Eli’s family seem to be totally on board with his wishes. He has lived a long life and his degenerative condition makes his care increasingly painful for himself and those around him. As a deeply religious family (one of his daughters is a rabbi), all the Timoners, especially Eli, are confident in their faith in the afterlife from which Eli is preserved: “the next adventure”. Therefore, the film follows Eli and his family as he spends his final days bidding farewell to his loved ones, preparing to negotiate the intricacies of medical practice and California end of life law and explore the nuances in how each of their family members cope with their impending demise.

The film is a family affair, right down to the music, which was composed by Eli’s stepdaughter, Morgan, and the family is involved in every step of the onscreen events. Ondi’s camera barely leaves Eli’s room during the fortnight’s waiting period – a legal and medical requirement to give Eli time to think about his decision – and virtually no part of the process seems off limits. . Through this process, we get a window into Eli’s discomfort, regrets, humor, and life so far. This can often draw the viewer into an intimacy that can become uncomfortable as they are forced into confrontation with their lived experiences. The main purpose of the film is undoubtedly to praise a vivacious, acerbic and loving husband, father and friend, but it serves a dual purpose of demystifying the process of euthanasia. It’s not polemical, however, and will likely leave the viewer with the same opinions and perspectives they found them with. Some may well be uncomfortable with the process and the level of access provided, which is largely unquestioned. There’s a moment when Eli complains about wearing a microphone on his deathbed but refuses to have it removed when offered. I don’t doubt it, but it would still have been nice to see him confirm on camera that he was enthusiastically in favor of filming the process and aware of what it would entail.

Eli lived a specific and eventful life with dramatic ups and downs, his business had its ups and downs, and he lived an active life as a father and political actor, until his illness left him. obliges him to pass the torch to his children. The film mentions his regrets, some of which he recounts before his death. He does not mention the air disaster that resulted in the death of seventy-eight people, nor makes any connection between this and the financial collapse of his business, or his stroke six months later. With such intense family focus and auteur scrutiny, it’s understandable that such events were deliberately excluded, they would distract from what was obviously felt to be the immediate focus of the documentary. However, those with a more curious outside view might well find the omission unsatisfactory. It’s a place where the intimacy of creating the documentary works against it, as family members are generally less curious and questioning about each other than strangers would be.

There is no doubt Last return flight can be a difficult and morbid watch, and would likely be frustrating as well, depending on how strong your feelings are, on a variety of topics. It’s a strange and powerful experience to be asked to witness a stranger’s induced death on camera and probably many would think they don’t need to participate. It is equally certain that Last return flight will be a deeply impactful experience for many who choose to attend.

About Debra D. Johnson

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