The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2014)

Him & Her

In theory, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby could be considered as somewhat of an improbable feat in today’s commercial climate, given its unprecedented three-hour running time and unique presentation, being split into two semi-autonomous parts. Having somehow cleared all of its initial hurdles, director Ned Benson’s accomplished first feature is a staggering tale about a married couple, desperately attempting to recover from a devastating incident. Told through two separate points of view, from the eyes of the young husband, then his wife’s, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a modest, touching and hauntingly sincere cinematic achievement.

Ah, look at all the lonely people!
Ah, look at all the lonely people!

Similar to Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese period drama, Rashômon (1950), The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is split into two complementary parts, Him and Her — each however, could act as a stand-alone feature — but to truly understand the idea behind Benson’s undertaking, while experiencing the complete story, one must view both parts of the account. Whilst Him sets out the groundwork for the feature, Her provides the answer to the question, so to speak; nonetheless either part can be viewed in any order, as the differing perspectives carry each respective narrative. Basically, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby tells the story of one couple’s heartache, following the unexpected death of their child, largely as they try to reclaim the life and love they once knew. Unable to cope with the grief and loss, Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) disappears in Him; while her husband Conor (James McAvoy), struggles to survive after she walks away from their relationship one fateful day. Although questions are eventually answered in Her, writer-director Ned Benson skilfully limits the information surrounding Eleanor’s disappearance in Him, as Conor re-examines the dissolution of their once fruitful relationship. On a side note, the picture’s title isn’t a witty ode to a Beatles track, nor is it necessarily solely referring to Eleanor’s ‘physical’ departure, instead, it alludes to the disappearance of her personality, which has evidently been erased by her immeasurable sadness.

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) — who met Benson at the Malibu Film Festival a decade earlier, having caught one of his shorts, and subsequently became involved in the Eleanor Rigby project at such a molecular level — gives an immersive performance in the title role, particularly within Her, as she convincingly depicts the anguish and despair of a woman who has lost herself entirely. Even Rigby’s need to escape and start afresh is completely understandable when explored through her perspective. Similarly, we are also able to sympathize with James McAvoy, Wanted (2008), as Conor — a chief who spends countless days working at his restaurant while desperately trying to find his estranged wife, in the hope of reclaiming their lost love — with his portrayal of the character being multi-layered and sincere; ultimately resulting in one of the best performances of his career. What’s more, the picture allows the audience to empathize with either party, depending on which viewpoint one is surveying, without ever forcing us to shift alliances or betray sides.

Professor Xavier, having some difficulty trying to read Eleanor's mind!
Professor Xavier, having some difficulty trying to read Eleanor’s mind!

Despite being part of an over-arching narrative, both Him and Her have diverse visual realms. Him is much more static, more ‘locked-off,’ with steadycam being used for a significant portion of the film. In spite of this, once Eleanor re-enters the frame, director Benson switches to handheld, symbolizing the emotional tenor within the environment. Furthermore, Him is a ‘cooler’ looking picture, since the male character is probably more detached, therefore bleaker hues such as blues make up a significant portion of the film’s visual aesthetic. In contrast, Her is a warmer feeling piece with oranges and reds making up the feature’s color palette, particularly as it deals with the more emotional side of the story. In reverse to Him, Her is mostly shot handheld, representing the uncertainty in Rigby’s world as she attempts to re-scope with the person she was, and figure out who she now wants to become. Her only turns static after Conor is once again seen, denoting his position as the baseline or balance to Eleanor’s story, the constant in her life.

The secondary players are equally as strong in Him and Her. Bill Hader, Superbad (2007), breaks away from his comedy roots as Conor’s buddy Stuart, giving a natural and confident performance, whilst offering subtle comic beats throughout the feature. Granted Stuart holds incredible purpose within building Conor’s personality in Him, the two film’s subjectivity somewhat distorts his role, as he is depicted differently, depending on whose account one is viewing — Hader is painted as a much more mysterious character in Her, but is established right away in Him, as Conor’s best friend — look out for an amusing fight between the pair which plays out like a little anecdote, lightening a tense portion of the narrative. Likewise, the multi-talented Viola Davis, The Help (2011), enriches every scene she’s in as New York University lecturer, Professor Lillian Friedman — who befriends Eleanor when she decides to return to college for further education — leaving a lasting impression given her character’s minimal screen time. Thankfully, Benson has assembled an array of exquisite actors to render other supporting roles, such as William Hurt, Into the Wild (2007), who plays Eleanor’s loving dad, Julian Rigby, his French wife, Mary Rigby, played by Isabelle Huppert, Amour (2012), Ciarán Hinds, Munich (2005), who portrays Conor’s bitter divorced father, Spencer Ludlow, and Jess Weixler, Teeth (2007), as Eleanor’s caring sister Katy, all of whom rise up to the task of offering a little more insight into the characters they interact with.

Would you lie with me and just forget the world?
Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

Even though the two films essentially share a single narrative, there are subtle changes within each account illustrating that two people can perceive the same occasion ever so differently. In reality, memories alter and interpretations blur with time, feelings and emotions — a sky might be remembered as clear in one person’s recollection of events, and grey by another. At other times, the meaning behind an inconsequential line can shift with the emotion being felt by the words, whereas the memory might be forgotten by one party altogether. Thus, as both features are subjectively shot, certain scenes of Him and Her are blocked out entirely differently, while dialogue is drastically altered between viewpoints, making it impossible to truly develop a clear understanding of what ‘actually’ took place. Either way, Benson has skilfully cooked up a multifaceted ballet of perspectives within The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, creating some key set pieces including a romantic dinner, capturing the early magic between Eleanor and Conor, followed by a twilight walk at East Village’s Tompkins Square in New York, where our lovers lock eyes and discover they’ve fallen deeply in love with each other, surrounded by an array beautiful fireflies; other times simple dialogue uttered by Conor appears poetic in Eleanor’s fragile mind, once again, toying with our protagonist’s observations.

Additionally, the finale of the saga could yield an entirely different sensation depending on which story viewers see first, audiences may walk away in either tears of sadness or joy. One picture lacks any sort of real closure, while a catharsis is offered in the other; either way, both features come to a somewhat poetic resolve in the end. Alas, after the Weinstein Company acquired the rights to the property, the studio decided to re-cut the project into one all-encompassing version, potentially making it an easier sell to audiences by combining both points-of-view, creating The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. Kudos to editor Kristina Boden, Carlito’s Way (1993), who had the daunting task of rearranging two very complete, yet distinctive features into one. Personally having never seen the combined Them, it’s impossible to comment on the final cut of the film, however, I assume that supporting characters have been drastically reduced to make way for the leads, Eleanor and Conor, while the juxtaposition explored in the separate outings would be less noticeable.

Eleanor Rigby ... wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door ...
Eleanor Rigby … wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door …

Regardless, all these elements add up to a promising debut from director Benson who hits all the right chords as The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is an admirable feature, gracefully exploring the trials and tribulations of a couple who are forced to pick up the pieces of a wonderful past, crushed by the heartache of loss. With an engrossing performance by Jessica Chastain as Eleanor Rigby — whom was named after the popular Beatles song — and an equally powerful co-star in James McAvoy, the two films Him and Her — making up the sum total of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby — are a hauntingly sorrowful journey into the lives of a couple shattered and transformed by pain of the most devastating kind.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is released through Transmission Films Australia