It’s rather bizarre not to see a Beatles track sneak into “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”, an interesting film that looks into a deteriorating relationship from the perspective of both parties involved. This feature debut from Ned Benson is actually two films shown back to back subtitled Her and Him respectively. While the order of the presentation may vary depending on which screening you attend, the one at the Melbourne International Film Festival kicked it off with Her followed by Him. In addition to the ambitious storytelling, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is anchored by solid performances from the leads Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. In addition, the supporting characters ranging from Bill Hader’s comedic touch to Isabelle Huppert’s fun portrayal of Eleanor’s chain-smoking wine guzzling mum surely helps this film move along its lengthy runtime.
As companion pieces, Benson has indicated that the films can be seen in any order. At the MIFF screening, it kick started with Her first and it certainly provided a more dramatic kickoff as the film opens with Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) walking along a New York City bridge before she hurls herself off it in an attempt to commit suicide. In a slightly slower reveal compared to Him, we eventually learn that Eleanor is traumatized by the death of their infant son, which has driven a wedge into the relationship between her and her husband Conor (James McAvoy). The slow burn reveal of this traumatic event allows us to be drawn in by the characters and connect with them by feeling the pain, loss and confusion that they are experiencing. It strengthens the impact of the big news that as an audience, we can feel the emotional weight of a sudden tragic event. The other added benefit is that rather than focusing on the tragedy itself, the movie now focuses on two broken individuals on their own paths to recovery.
Conor remains mostly unseen in Her as Eleanor lays low at her parents’ home as she takes up a few university courses in an attempt to repair her fragile self. From her studies, we meet Eleanor’s cynical and witty professor Lillian (Viola Davis). Through conversations with Lillian, Eleanor rediscovers her past life before meeting Conor and contemplates on finishing the dissertation that she abandoned in favour for love. Eleanor seems emotionally cold and fragile throughout the film, but her sister with a big heart (Jess Weixler) adds a bit of emotional warmth as we wait for Eleanor to finally step out of her shell.
In Him, not only do we find Conor feeling the after effects of having the rug pulled right under him when Eleanor disappears, he also has to deal with his own struggling business as his restaurant/bar is on the verge of closing down. While Eleanor turns to her family in her time of need, Conor turns to his work family, which includes his best friend, chef Stuart (who is channelling his inner Seth Cohen) and his barmaid (Nina Arianda), who is more willing to satisfy him physically than Eleanor. The most compelling parts in Him are the interactions between Conor and his distant yet hip restaurateur father played by Ciaran Hinds. While Conor’s father is a successful businessman, he fails at relationships, which makes for interesting father-son conversations as he tries to pass on advice that he himself was not wise enough to follow.
Through Her and Him, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby shows different ways of how people grieve. While Eleanor tries to hit the reset button in her life, Conor continues to push forward and carry on despite the struggles. Conor might seem to be the more put-together of the two, but both are struggling to stay afloat as they are drowning in their own despair.
The brilliant thing with telling the same story from different perspectives is that you get to see the same situations play out with a slight variation. Sometimes it is hard to point a finger at anyone for the cause of a relationship to fall apart. Sometimes, the blame falls on both individuals. Through the film, it is hinted that neither Eleanor nor Conor are reliable storytellers. Each of them manipulates their memory to justify for their own actions. It might be a good reason to revisit the films from time to time to break down the scenes to find out who is telling the story more truthfully. There is one crucial scene where Eleanor and Conor are trapped in a car during a really bad storm. They are about to engage in sex for the first time since her ‘disappearance’, yet the sequence plays out slightly differently in both films, which is quite the crucial point.
There’s something about The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby that digs underneath your skin and leaves you feeling unsettled by the end of the screening. The story is so rich and emotionally gripping that you can feel the joy in the early moments of Eleanor and Conor’s relationship yet also experience the heartache of watching these two drift apart.