The most unexpected thing about The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her that may surprise audiences once it actually gets completed and released is how strangely conventional it seems while watching it. To some, this will no doubt prove disappointing: those expecting some monumental shakeup of cinematic expression that announces itself as a game changer should go watch Gravity or something. Those dreading the prospect of a three-hour cerebral slog of a movie are going to be pleased by how personal, emotional, entertaining and generally engaging the film is, despite its ambitious premise.
What screened at TIFF has been labeled as a “work in progress,” and after the film was purchased at the festival by Harvey Weinstein, many are speculating that its runtime will be cut significantly in hopes of reaching a wider audience. In fact, its second public screening apparently showed the two parts, labeled Him and Her, in reverse order, with Her being presented first. I would be curious to see if the film works as well when it’s played that way.
I saw it in its Him and Her incarnation, and if nothing about it changes, it will remain something of a small masterpiece. The premise is that it plays as two separate films, almost like Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima double feature, telling the story (or stories) of two individuals who are married, first from the husband’s perspective (again, that’s how it was arranged when I watched it), then from wife’s. The details of their lives aren’t terribly unusual. Connor, played by James McAvoy, is a restaurant owner whose business is struggling. Eleanor, played by Jessica Chastain, is going back to school. Both have close but somewhat complicated relationships with their parents. Both are moderately unhappy with their individual lives, but for a while at least, they are each other’s respite from the misery of the day to day.
The deterioration is not shown explicitly, but the elements that led to it are. It’s in this perspective on relationships (that they’re inherently doomed to some extent), that it is reminiscent of Derek Cianfrance’s work on a movie like Blue Valentine. Furthermore, the interest in how much of individual identity is inherited from a person’s parents shares a view with The Place Beyond the Pines. One of the primary sources of the breakdown of the relationship is Eleanor’s depression, which after a dark episode results in her newfound desire to remake her life, and that includes trying to move forward without Connor. The realization both characters come to, to their seeming surprise, is that everyone around them is as sad and lonely as they are. But that, also, is not the main focus of the film.
The crux of the story, the greatest virtue this film, or these films, have to boast is the beautiful way writer/director Ned Benson captures two distinct tones, two individual perspectives, and two intertwined stories so realistically and with such feeling. For starters, each segment could work as a standalone film, the way those couple of Kieslowski’s Decalogue do, even though they work even better together. That’s a testament to the fact that each part is treated as its own living thing, able to function on its own. Connor’s story focuses on a man trying to get his life together when his wife leaves him; Eleanor’s looks at a woman on the brink of losing it trying to piece things back together again. These are separate stories, but because of their relationship, there’s naturally going to be important intersections.
Other movies that are comparable to this, the idea of showing the same events from different perspectives, tend to feel a little gimmicky, like a series of callbacks and “oh yes, I remember how that looked from the other camera angle” sorts of moments. And that can work wonders sometimes. The road taken here is far more subtle, and with a greater emphasis on what particular moments mean to each character at a given time, in a given context. The reaction we’re meant to experience is not “ah yes, I saw that before” but rather “now I understand what he/she was thinking.” The way this is done is fascinating, with characters often not wearing the same clothes when we see the same scene a second time, in completely different positions, sometimes reciting different lines, as though what we’re watching are each character’s memories that are skewed by their own biases and imperfect recall abilities.
Really, the plot of the movie is not all that important. What matters most are the way the two stories are handled. The acting is so superb that it does not feel like acting at all, with the two leads McAvoy and Chastain doing some of their finest work, and outstanding supporting work being offered up by William Hurt, Viola Davis, and, wouldn’t you know it, Bill Hader. I can’t think of another film that so perfectly encapsulates that confounding aspect of being in a romantic relationship—where each person is a person with their own identity, experiences, feelings and sadness, but somehow, together, they feel as though they’re better, less sad, and less lonely. We see this in the characters, but also in the separate films themselves. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her could play very well as two completely separate entities, but somehow, they just work better together.