Review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her (TIFF 2013)
REVIEW: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY is one of the most ambitious pieces of work to hit TIFF this year in that its actually two full-fledged films in one. Imagine this as sort of an art-house GRINDHOUSE, with it being two ninety minute films packaged together as one three hour double feature, each sharing the same cast, but told through different perspectives.
The first film, HIM, follows the male half of our star couple, Conor (James McAvoy) as he recovers from his wife Eleanors (Jessica Chastain) sudden decision to leave him and start her life over after the death of their child. He struggles to make sense of her decision, which comes out of the blue (in his version anyway), focusing his efforts on somehow winning her back, while simultaneously letting his struggling restaurant, which he runs with his best friend (Bill Hader) fall to pieces.
Throughout McAvoys part of the movie, Chastains Eleanor is an aloof figure, with her all but vanishing from their New York neighborhood, only to pop up here and there to confuse him about whether or not their marriage is actually over. McAvoys part of the film is angrier, and harder edged as we see him desperately try to keep both his business and his life from hitting the skids, eventually turning to his long absent celebrity restaurateur father (Ciaran Hinds) for guidance. On its own, its an absorbing tale of loss, with him grieving for their marriage at least as much as he grieves for their dead son, and its an intriguing look into the mindset of the abandoned partner.
On its own though, it seems like a pretty two dimensional view of the dissolution of a relationship, but writer-director Ned Bensons vision really only comes into focus once HER begins. It tells the parallel story of where Eleanor went during her disappearance, following her back to her parents (William Hurt & Isabelle Huppert) family home in the suburbs, where she tries to find meaning in her life after the death of her child. Her grief is more upfront and weighted towards the death of their child than Conors is, and if she came off as flighty in the first film, here we finally start to understand her motivations.
The really interesting thing about ELEANOR RIGBY is that Benson often restages the same scene in each version, with the emphasis being shifted between the characters, or some dialogue being changed, with each remembering it a different way. For instance, in one version, Conor admits to an affair, while in the other, Eleanor is able to figure it out on her own.
This tool is intriguing, although after having sat through all three hours plus of these two movies, I couldnt help but wonder whether it would be just as effective if each story only ran one hour as opposed to ninety minutes. If Bensons serious about the apparent plan to release them separately, Im not at all sure the movie will work, as to me it felt like it can only play as a single film. Divided up, youd never be satisfied just watching one part, as youre only getting half the story.
Whichever way it comes out though, it cant be denied that the acting in both films is superlative. McAvoys romanticism, mixed with anger at the relationship falling apart is among his best work, and he makes for a likable lead, despite his characters stubbornness. In his half of the film, Bill Hader from SNL provides some much-needed comic relief, while Ciaran Hinds is flat-out amazing as McAvoys aging hipster father.
It can help but feel- however- that Benson saves the best for last, with most of the films most memorable sequences coming in the Chastain-focused HER section. I hear the part was written for her, and it shows. She has an ethereal quality that works beautifully for the character, even if she occasionally seems a little flighty and spoiled by her devoted parents, who are well-played by Hurt and Huppert. Chastain also gets her own confidant, in Viola Davis as the professor she befriends upon returning to school to finish her degree. Davis is great but the part doesnt feel like much more than the patented sassy best pal part, with her seemingly being around only to help Chastain figure some stuff out, rather than have any issues of her own to overcome. Haders part in HIM is more nuanced.
As one long movie, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HIM AND HER works pretty well, even if the pace cant help but feel sluggish. If this comes out as one movie (which to me seems the only option) it should be tightened up. If it ends up coming out as two films, I have my doubts as to whether itll work, as it really does feel like two parts of one whole, whether than two distinct halves. Either way its worth checking out, but I really believe its one film and not two, despite what it ends up being sold as.