Were it not for the existence of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby would surely be remembered as 2014's most ambitious filmmaking experiment. It was initially intended as a single feature film, and Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) was attached to star as the title character. When Chastain began asking questions about her character's past, Benson wound up writing a second screenplay. Eventually, the project evolved into two separate films: Him and Her, each of which examined one side of a complicated romantic relationship. Unfortunately, distributor Harvey Weinstein (the star of so many anecdotes that begin with the word “unfortunately”) wanted a single cut that he could release to the general public, so Benson combined various pieces of the two movies to make Them. As such, there are now three films bearing the title The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which is almost certainly more than anyone really needs.
All three of the movies detail the relationship between Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) and Eleanor Rigby (Chastain), a married couple attempting to hold things together in the wake of a personal tragedy. Eleanor thinks that the two should spend some time apart. Conor is bewildered by this, and asks what he's done wrong. Eleanor leaves anyway, sending Conor into a tailspin of confusion and desperation.
I realize that isn't a lot of information, plot-wise, but how much you know upfront really depends on which order you watch the movies in. Speaking of which, what's the ideal way to experience The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby? Opinions seem to vary, but here's mine: watch Him and Her (in that order), skip Them altogether. Though there's a little repetition between Him and Her, Them is entirely made up of stuff we've seen in the other two films and doesn't do anything to deepen our perspective of the story (if anything, it oversimplifies the matter). Though Benson's name is attached to all three movies, it's clear that this was designed as a two-movie experience.
Him is the lesser of the two movies, mostly because Conor is the less interesting of the two characters. His tale is a portrait of frustration and confusion, as Conor attempts to come to terms with the inexplicable disappearance of his wife and tries to understand why she felt it was necessary to leave. He manages a small restaurant with his best friend Stuart (Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live) and engages in a series of terse conversations with his father (Ciaran Hinds, Munich). There are some good moments here (the final conversation between McAvoy and Hinds has considerable power), but Conor is a man defined by his wife's absence. He's a gloomy, perpetually irritated guy trying to understand his identity, which is a relatable situation but not a particularly compelling one.
Eleanor, on the other hand, is not defined by the absence of her husband but by the murky depths of her emotions, and it's obvious that Benson is far more interested in her than he is in Conor. Her has a soulful tenderness Him doesn't reach very often, and Chastain does superb work as a woman attempting to contain her heartache. After breaking up with Conor, she moves in with her parents (William Hurt, A History of Violence and Isabelle Huppert, I Heart Huckabees) and takes a job at the university where her father works. Her certainly has the benefit of a richer supporting cast: Viola Davis (Doubt) is terrific as the flinty university professor who takes Eleanor under her wing, while Hurt and Huppert bring so much lovely detail to their characters you almost wish that a fourth movie had been made about them.
On their own terms, the movies aren't much to write home about: Him is kind of a drag and Her is good but inconsistent. However, the films reach new depths as a joint experience, offering a thoughtful illustration of how human beings see each other. In Him, Eleanor comes across as a bizarrely erratic, exasperating person. In Her, Conor comes across as thoughtless and needy. Neither of those characterizations are quite accurate, but by limiting the perspective of each film, Benson enables us to see these people the way they see each other, and helps us understand why it's so difficult for these two to cross the mysterious divide that exists between them. Most of the scenes featuring both characters are present in both films, but watch closely: the scenes aren't identical in each version. Benson makes alterations to the dialogue (sometimes having the characters swap lines), slightly changes the physical appearance of each character and places more or less emphasis on certain elements of a scene. These moments are some of the film's most revealing; a thoughtful examination of the unreliability of memory. Who said what? When did they say it? How did they say it? The answers to those questions are slippery in memory, and that's part of what makes Them so inferior: it presents a pointlessly “objective” perspective.
This is Benson's first feature, and he makes a number of rookie mistakes. He has a tendency to overwrite the dialogue scenes, leading to a handful of crucial moments which feel strangely unconvincing. There are symmetrical visual touches which feel as if they exist for their own sake (example: one movie features a poster of Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin Feminin, the other features a poster of Claude Leloch's A Man and a Woman), and the indie pop music soundtrack tends to be on the drippy side. Some of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped, particularly the ones played by Hader, Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris) and Jess Weixler (Teeth). Take away the unique structure, and you basically have a bloated, less gripping version of Rabbit Hole (which is exactly how I'd describe Them).
Still, the structure makes a big difference. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby may not be much more than a gimmick, but that gimmick informs and deepens the story in a variety of fascinating ways. If you're a lover of cinema, the film is worth seeing for the simple fact that it explores the boundaries of what cinema can do. Sure, in the hands of a stronger writer/director, the tale could have achieved much more (especially considering the cast members involved), but the simple fact of the matter is that most people wouldn't have even attempted something like this. I'll say this much: after sitting through over five hours of this... thing, I was sorely tempted to go back and watch Him and Her again in a different order, just to re-examine Benson's prismatic construction from another angle. If Benson had actually made a masterpiece, I might have been stuck on it for days.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time (Him): 96 minutes
Running Time (Her): 106 minutes
Running Time (Them): 123 minutes
Release Year: 2014