The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them
For the most part, movies are obsessed with the notion that romantic love lasts forever. That explains the popularity of romantic comedies, most of which conclude with a declaration of undying affection, sealed with a kiss. Only a few brave directors dare to look through the glass darkly, peering at what happens after that delirious pinnacle. With 50% of marriages ending in divorce, it's clear that, in the real world, "happily ever after" is an ephemeral concept but most movie-goers don't want to be reminded of this. With The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, first time director Ned Benson turns his lens on a couple once their union has been sundered. It shows how they traverse the rocky path to individual survival once their identity as "them" no longer exists. In the end, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is perhaps more successful when viewed as pieces than as a whole. The performances are uniformly strong and there are some powerful scenes but the overall story arc is less insightful or affecting than one might hope.
Benson starts by teasing us with a glimpse of the romantic comedy fantasy: a flashback scene from early during the honeymoon phase of the love affair between would-be restaurateur Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and graduate student Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain). After establishing how madly in love these two are, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby fast-forwards about seven years to a scene in which Eleanor attempts suicide by jumping from a bridge. After being released from the hospital, she returns to live at her family's upper class Connecticut home, where she is watched over by her father, Julian (William Hurt), and mother, Mary (Isabelle Huppert), and supported by her younger sister, Katy (Jess Weixler). Little mention is made of her husband, although it's apparent their marriage is in deep trouble. For Conor, it's a matter of finding out what happened to Eleanor and, once he learns her whereabouts, making contact and trying to re-establish the lines of communication.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby has a lot of things to recommend it but it stumbles when it comes to the "big picture." The break-up, which occurs off-screen and is referred to obliquely, is never adequately explored. It relates to the death of a young child and Benson can't restrain himself when it comes to using this hot-button issue for occasional manipulation (a photograph, a scene in which a child's belongings are removed from a closet). It's well established that many marriages don't survive the shock of this kind of tragedy but the lack of details makes the actions of all the characters (Eleanor especially) seem arbitrary. We're forced to conclude that the reason Eleanor walks away from Conor without telling him she's leaving is because he's not coping with grief the same way she is.
As problematic as some of the broader narrative elements are, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby works on a smaller level due to well scripted dialogue and top-notch performances. Many individual scenes shine, especially those that pair Chastain with McAvoy. There are also memorable parallel conversations late in the film between Conor and his father (Ciaran Hinds) and Eleanor and her dad. Chastain has the plum role throughout, and she's great: Eleanor comes across as a wounded and complex individual who tries with difficulty to put aside her past so she can move into the future. McAvoy's performance is strong but Conor's arc is more straightforward so he's less interesting. The final scene is at once both ambiguous and hopeful.
Benson is a fan of long takes, often moving the camera instead of cutting to a different angle. The final scene, which lasts about five minutes, is an example of this. He also makes good use of soft focus, allowing certain foreground objects and details to appear crisply while everything else is blurry and ghost-like. This enhances mood and gives a sense of how muddled the characters are about everything beyond themselves. Transitions aren't always smooth and there are times when scenes seem to be missing, but there's a reason for this.
The movie's full title is The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. Originally, Benson made two films, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her. Those pictures explored the break-up from two different perspectives, offering a Rashomon-like autopsy of the situation. At about 190 minutes, the full double-feature was deemed too long for Harvey Weinstein and Benson agreed to distill the footage into a single production. Although the basic framework of the story has been retained, the most intriguing aspect - seeing events from two disparate viewpoints - has been lost. Him and Her may get limited art-house distribution and will be available on home video, but Them is the only version that will play in most theaters.
"All the lonely people Where do they all come from?" (a line from the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby") is called out explicitly by Benson's screenplay and it represents a thematic conceit. As Conor and Eleanor learn to cope with their lives as they are today, they have to understand the difference between being "lonely" and being "alone." It's questionable whether The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby does a good job taking us on that journey but there are enough substantive and welcome points of interest along the way that it's worth making the trip anyway. See this for what it offers not for what isn't there.