Friday, October 17, 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her

Earlier this week I saw The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby at the Landmark Embarcadero.  Technically, I saw two films.  The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him followed by The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her.  However, the two films were packaged together as a single 3 hour, 9 minute film with no intermission titled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her starring Jessica Chastain & James McAvoy; with Viola Davis, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Ciarán Hinds, Bill Hader, Jess Weixler & Nina Arianda; directed by Ned Benson; (2013) - Official Website

The premise of the films is that the audience sees a couple break apart.  First, from the perspective of the man and then from the perspective of the woman.  There is actually a third version of the film called  The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them which combines the two but frankly that seems to defeat the whole purpose of the project which is to show how the two people view the breakup so differently.

The first question is why invoke The Beatles with the title?  Having read the lyrics to the song, I don't see a direct connection and referencing the name seems to be unnecessarily distracting (not to mention the added licensing fees).  I never figured that out but it didn't matter because I quickly became engrossed with the film.

I walked in about 5 minutes late and I missed the opening which I have read involves Connor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) Ludlow (née Rigby) doing a dine and dash.  As I later discovered, the film starts with the Him version.

When I walked into the theater, Connor (a restaurateur) is depressed at the state of his relationship.  He returns to his Brooklyn walk-up apartment before the dinner service to find his wife still in bed and morose.  As the film progresses, it is made known that the Ludlow's son has died and it has put an enormous strain on their marriage.  Eleanor eventually attempts suicide and afterwards disappears without a trace.

Connor chances upon Eleanor and begins to stalk his own wife.  Eleanor is largely absent from Him.  Connor is left to deal with his seemingly irrational wife's absence.  As time passes, Connor's most pressing problem becomes his restaurant which is financially failing.  At a crucial juncture, Eleanor returns and the audience is hopeful that the couple will reconcile but Connor admits an infidelity at an inopportune moment.

Him ends at some unspecified point in the future when Connor has taken over his father's restaurant and as he takes a walk before the dinner service, his wife trails behind him...reversing their roles from earlier in the film.

In Her, we learn that after her suicide attempt, Eleanor has taken refuge with her parents in a wealthy suburb.  We learn a little more of the backstory of their relationship.  Eleanor's parents seem to have not approved of their romance initially.  In addition, Eleanor is more rational and less angry than the glimpses we see in Him. She also thinks back to the early days of their relationship more often that one would think given her behavior in Him.

Ultimately, the Her story converges with Him but Her is viewed differently than Him because the audience already knows what happens.  However, director Ned Benson does something clever.  In the scenes which overlap the two viewpoints, he occasionally changes events between the two version.  I caught a number of small discrepancies but there were three significant ones which make the story more ambiguous.

First, during an intimate encounter in an automobile Connor confesses he has slept with someone during their separation.  In the Her, Connor does not confess but rather Eleanor correctly guesses his indiscretion based on his hesitation.  The even switch physical positions:  Connor on top of Eleanor in Him and vice versa in Her.

The second discrepancy occurs when the pair are clearing out of their apartment.  In Her, Eleanor apologizes for her behavior while that does not occur in Him.  In one version she wants to apologize and in the other, he doesn't hear the apology.

Finally, the ending of the two films leave the audience with distinctly different impressions.  In Him, Eleanor follows Connor without saying a word and the film fades to black.  In Her, after following him for a period, Eleanor calls out to Connor who turns around and approaches her.

I interpreted these differences as the Rashōmon Effect which makes me wonder how they were dealt with in Them.

The cast is uniformly fantastic.  McAvoy's Connor comes across a little too passive and whiny for me while Chastain's Eleanor is too shrill at times.  Both of these characters are flawed yet also appealing.  Of the two, Chastain's part is the more meaty one; particularly when considering both films as whole.  She really gets to show some range in the role of Rigby.

The real treat in Eleanor Rigby are the supporting performances.  William Hurt & Isabelle Huppert play Eleanor's parents.  I didn't know Huppert could speak English well enough to act in English language films.  Here, she nicely plays an alcoholic mother who regrets her life choices which explicitly includes having her daughters.  Jess Weixler is Eleanor younger sister, an unmarried mother who lives at home and has some issues with her big sister.  Ciarán Hinds portrays Connor's father, a famous and successful restaurateur who is one-step removed from being estranged from his son.  Bill Hader is Connor's flaky best friend and chef.  Finally, Viola Davis commands every scene she is in as Eleanor's cynical psychology professor with whom she forms a friendship.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her was a very satisfying film for me.  It's one of the better films I have seen in 2014.  Both Chastain & Davis have had some high-profile parts in the past few years (both were in The Help a few years ago).  It's good to see them continue their histories of strong performances.

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