Published Sep 11, 2013Originally, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was conceived as a straightforward relationship drama about the disintegration of a relationship after the death of their infant leaves them coping in very different ways. Conor (James McAvoy) lives in denial of the event, packing away his son's belongings and responding with hostility when those in his life—chiefly his father Spencer (Ciarán Hinds) and best friend Stuart (Bill Hader)—try to address the subject, while Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) falls into a deep depression, eventually attempting suicide before re-evaluating the choices she's made in life.
After years of failed attempts to get this project to the screen, the script evolved into, two feature length films unto themselves, initially detailing the experience from his perspective before stepping back and expanding on everything she experienced. It's the sort of cinematic experiment that could devolve into repetitive gimmickry, exaggerating differences of opinion and dramatizing the gender divide with broad clichés. But first time feature film director Ned Benson is far more interested in relationship legitimacy and identity deconstruction—really capturing the subtleties of subjectivity and how any given relationship can represent very different things to the parties involves—than he is in making something contrived and playfully stylized.
The initial film, "Him," is driven by the absence of Eleanor. Conor, being prone to outbursts in his vaguely trendy bar where he and Stuart—his best friend and chef—struggle to make ends meet, is perplexed by his wife's departure. She indicates that she needs space to figure things, and herself, out, but he can't conceive of this, being, in essence, a co-dependent entity.
From his perspective, Eleanor is always somewhat cold and mysterious. Her behaviours are cryptic and lacking in the warmth and emotion that later—very subtly—become present when we see these situations through her eyes. Conor's solipsism isn't severe or villainous; he's merely a man in love vacillating between respecting his wife's wishes to be alone and stalking her, concerned that he may not get her back.
Every moment of Conor's life, even the rare occasion when he discusses his future ambitions with his father, is haunted by Eleanor. The tone and trajectory borders on a wittier and darker than average romantic comedy, with him trying to reclaim his love and clean up the tatters in his life to make sense of the compounding missed opportunities and knowing mistakes he's made to lead him to yet another starting point in his mid-'30s.
Up until his segment ends and an on screen title denotes that we are now going to see things from "Her" perspective, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is merely an above average, entertaining look at what is left of a person defined entirely by their companionship once they wind up alone. But, once this second segment gets going, despite having many mirroring plot points and the same loose aesthetic style, the slight distinctions make it clear that Benson has far more on his mind than mere relationship dynamics.
Throughout the film, many comments are made about identity. How one person can destroy the life of another just by existing as they are is discussed, as is the nature of interpreting the self in relation to the concessions we make to relate with and feign closeness with others. Eleanor's world, contrary to Conor's, seems whole in his absence. After moving back in with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) and reconnecting with her sister Katy (Jess Weixler), her story becomes one of self-discovery where Conor is never mentioned or even acknowledged, giving a sense of ease and equilibrium that is uprooted every time he shows up in her life.
And beyond impressively establishing a very different tone and thematic core with this second film, the minor differences in interpretations of key moments stand out. Their memories always have a slightly different syntax with minor things like seating, shirt colour and word choice being slightly, but not overtly askew. The same outcome occurs with the recollections on both sides, but our interpretation of what they mean to both parties change almost entirely once we have the full picture.
This gradual reveal of the many different signifiers and key observations that led to a relationship unravelling—with Conor never really understanding why there's a problem with the status quo while Eleanor starts to question her smooth transition into an assumed, almost performative, identity—is handled very intelligently and astutely. If anything, Benson's major fault, save some clunky dialogue between Eleanor and her Social Sciences professor Lillian Friedman (Viola Davis), is that he doesn't exploit subjectivity for enough emotional effect. His direction is too visually bland (for the most part) to invigorate his tendency towards analysis over visceral intensity.
Once Benson wraps everything up and the needs and expectations of Conor and Eleanor are clear, there is a sense of bigger human tragedy—Eleanor understands things in a way that Conor never really will—that lingers long after the credits role for obvious connective reasons. Whether or not they get back together is irrelevant and the avoidance of such contrivances is what helps this mostly effective, occasionally bumpy, experiment maintain so much integrity.
It also doesn't hurt that Benson has McAvoy and Chastain deliver layered and disturbingly intense performances as fully realized characters before stepping back and playing the characters they perceive each other as in the other's storyline. (Unison)