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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

September 19, 2014
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

This year’s prestige season opens strong with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, an ambitious first outing for writer/director Ned Benson. While the film we see now is less impressive than Benson’s original vision, it still boasts two powerful leads in Jessica Chastain — who also contributed significantly to the development process — and James McAvoy, and some confident and distinctive stylistic choices on Benson’s part.

The version being released today is subtitled Them; the original form was a pair of films, shot simultaneously, subtitled Him and Her, showing the two different sides of a period of crisis in the marriage of Conor Ludlow (McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Chastain). Them places both stories into a single context, cutting the running time down from over three hours to around two, but it manages to preserve the distinctive styles of each half.

Her is shot on hand-held cameras, with a color palette built from warm reds, oranges, and yellows. Him uses mostly static shots, and is painted in cold blues and greys; often the only warmth in a scene is the splash of Chastain’s red hair that comes popping out of the screen.

As the couple separates, Her welcomes Eleanor back into her childhood home with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) and divorced sister (Jess Weixler), but Eleanor herself is jittery and fragile after whatever precipitated the breakup. Him sees Conor, depressed, return to his emotionally distant father (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), and dive into the failing restaurant he runs with his friend (Bill Hader) the chef.

The fusion of the two may feel uneven if you’re not aware of the history, and I’m looking forward to the release of the separate versions next month, which should allow each side to play out uninterrupted, but the Weinsteins are probably not wrong that a single two-hour film will be easier for most audiences to swallow than two whole features covering the same ground from two biased perspectives.

Her was written later than Him, with much more input from Chastain, and in many ways feels like the stronger piece. Him focuses, apart from the separation, mainly on Conor’s relationship with his father, and on fathers and sons in general, which is far from unexplored territory. It’s still good, solid work; Hinds is always strong, and Hader proves himself capable of handling a more dramatic supporting role than his usual comedic fare.

But Her is where things fire on all cylinders. Chastain may be in fewer films than her annus mirabilis of 2011 — which year played no small part in getting this one made — but she pours all of her considerable talent into this one, both as an actress and a producer. Eleanor’s father gets her into a class taught by a former colleague (Viola Davis), which happens to be on the psychology of identity formation. That seems to be the key to her story; every woman she talks to — her mother, her sister, her professor — speaks of regrets about their identities in relationships. Eleanor’s mother, for instance, had a music career in Paris before becoming a wife and having children, and she worries that she did both too soon.

All too many women have this experience, disappearing into their relationships, becoming roles to others as their own identities fade. We see it in movies all the time, where female characters exist only in relation to men, without their own independent wants and needs. If anything, the title here seems a little ironic: Eleanor disappeared into her marriage long ago; this story is about her reappearance.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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