‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her & Him’
Director: Ned Benson
Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy
4 (out of 5) Globes
The decision to mash the original two parts of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” — subtitled “Her” and “Him,” which became “Them,” released in September — makes sense. The number of viewers up for a two-part, three-hour saga — about the death of a child and a couple’s break-up, no less — is almost certainly slim. On the other hand, as a traditional two-hour drama, “Eleanor Rigby” turns it into just another traditional two-hour drama, one that keeps herking and jerking between two very different storylines and styles. Seeing “Her” and “Him” explains why it exists, apart from as a depository for some great performances.
As their titles suggest, each film follows one part of a busted-up couple. But unlike in “Them,” you only learn the setup gradually. She is the cutely-named Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain), introduced in “Her” right before she jumps off the Manhattan Bridge. She survives and heads off to live with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) in the suburbs. Something has happened, but it takes beyond the first act to glean the details: That she was married to Connor (James McAvoy), that they had a newborn that died, in a way never revealed, and that she, after a prolonged depression followed by suicide attempt, has left him and their East Village apartment to start anew. She hasn’t even told Connor where she’s gone.
Connor makes cameo appearances in “Her,” and when he first appears, some 30 minutes into the film, we aren’t even sure what to expect of him, as we’re still not sure what happened. When he finally, after “Her,” gets his own say, we find a very different movie. Where Eleanor roams aimlessly, struggling to find a new persona and figure herself out, Connor, in “Him,” is angrier, more flustered, freaking out by the sudden loss of not only his child but now his life partner. He’s in free fall, especially as the gastropub he owns is clearly crumbling, occasionally stalking his soon-to-be-legal ex when he finds she’s taking classes nearby.
Neither film is perfect, nor do they have to be. They’re about a subject that denies perfection: Grief and loss and the sudden need to move on while being tethered to the past. Many of the scenes are there more for flavor than plot, to fill in their respective worlds. Eleanor’s single mom sister (Jess Weixler) finding a potential boyfriend may not be important to story, but it helps show the complex relationship between her and Eleanor, which usually looks like sisterly love but gradually reveals itself to be more complicated, even fractured. Likewise Connor hanging with his emotionally remote, mordant, sadsack divorcee father (Ciaran Hinds) could be cut — and were not cut for “Them” — without anyone noticing, but the saga would be worse for it. A meandering story filled with narrative holes is more forgiving at three hours than a tightened-up two.
“Her” exists at all because Chastain suggested “Rigby”’s writer-director, Ned Benson, to fill in the female side. But it can still be read as a very male project. Eleanor remains an enigma, including to herself; at one point she tosses off a key line to her sister about wishing she could read her mind for her, implying that even she can’t. It could be said that Benson can’t figure her out because he’s simply incapable. Though it’s clear this was a project where lengthy discussions amongst the cast found their way into the screenplay, it could have benefited from a full-on female screenwriter. Indeed, Benson seems far more comfortable exploring Connor’s side, a character who’s not only more emotionally up front but whose issues are better explored. Connor gets to play the victim — the guy who was walked out on and is sporadically tortured by a woman who doesn’t know what she wants, doesn’t want to give up on him but doesn’t want to re-up either. It’s a very male perspective, even during a film that’s exclusively from her side.
Still, both films, for their faults, manage to hurt good. The split focus creates an intense subjectivity, trapping us in each person’s perspective and forcing us to feel the same loss they do. (Or something close to it: By not learning about Eleanor’s past, for instance, we’re actually forced to experience how she’d like to imagine herself, which is as a blank slate.) Benson even makes the handful of shared scenes between the two differ slightly and sometimes dramatically — as though we were watching faulty memories that privilege the person remembering them. This part isn’t entirely coherent; are we watching an observant, in-the-moment drama or a memory piece? But the greater picture and the many individual things it does just right overwhelm the occasional flaws. They’re two messy films about messes, about people struggling to wrap things up into tidy packages and failing utterly. If that wasn’t apparent in “Them,” it’s painfully clear in “Her” and “Him.”
Read our review of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them."
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge