As The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby opens, Conor and Eleanor are wrapping up one of those unicorn dates you sometimes hear about: the connection between the two young lovers is palpable as they run off without paying for their dinner, and stumble into a heap on a grassy lawn somewhere in the middle of New York City in summer. She climbs on top of him and kisses him as her cheekbones glow in the moonlight. He holds her long, red hair in his hands, looks at her her big watercolor blue eyes, and is almost unwilling to believe his luck that this almost otherworldly creature is his and no one else’s in that moment in time says: You know, I only have one heart. Take it easy on me.
She, played by Jessica Chastain, smiles and kisses him, James Macavoy, again, and he seems reassured enough. Still, at that simple, potentially overemoted, yet somehow fully real moment you know: this is not going to end well. And then The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby begins.
The movie is a classic break-up tale. It is also only 1/3 of a full picture. Ned Benson, making his directorial full length debut, wrote & filmed the story as a two parter: HIM and HER which told this story from both of our leads’ perspectives, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year. We, as a lowly, non-festival going movie audience, get a 68 minutes shorter version called THEM, created undoubtedly as a date movie compromise for the smart, cool movie going dates out there, now with a trimmer two hour running time, still leaving a little bit of a window for a glass of wine afterwards and that inevitable conversation about how “This will never happen to us, right?”.
The thing is, it might. The movie, while I am sure it lacks some subtlety and depth of the longer version, is still somehow a deep, subtle, gorgeous meditation about how, no matter how hard you try, bad things can still happen. Conor and Eleanor (and yes, Rigby is her real last name) did seemingly everything right: they met, they fell in love, they stayed in love, they got married, they stayed faithful, they worked on things they both cared about, they were supportive, they got pregnant, they had a baby, they were a beautiful family and then something happened, and they didn’t know how to deal with it and now, here they are, broken.
She is gone, and he doesn’t know how to reach her and, in theory this is no one’s fault, and yet everything is pretty awful. Just like life can be.
All of this could also take a decided turn for the (unbreably) melodramatic and a little gimmicky (the movie flips and flops between timeframes and points of view with seemingly nothing but haircuts to clearly lead your way) but it is to Benson’s and his worthy cast’s credit that this never, ever happens. Chastain, especially, in the role of a broken woman (not a girl) in search of her (new? old?) self is amazing. A spectacularly intelligent actress, she doesn’t ask for your sympathy, she doesn’t need you to understand, she just needs to cope with things in a way that make sense to her, in this time and place. Sometimes not coping is the only coping there is. Sometimes people around you can’t quite accept the fact that you don’t need their help. MacAvoy, whose exaggerated features are a great contrast to Chastain’s porcelain structure is much more impulsive and weak as Conor, and the two sides of the coin play up so well you do wish you could spend those extra 68 minutes with them learning a little more about what makes these two be the way they are when we find them.
The couple is otherwise surrounded by smart, worldly people: Eleanor’s parents are professors and musicians (wonderfully cast William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert), the teacher she forms a bond with (Viola Davis) during a class she is taking to occupy some part of her brain with something else than her own misery is sharp and tough, Conor’s Father (a taciturn Ciaran Hinds) is a renowned restaurateur, and their friends and siblings are inhabited by such wonderful, intelligent young actors like Bill Hader (having quite the dramatic Fall), Nina Arianda, and Jess Weixler. Together, it all comes to create an almost rarefied, sophisticated universe that feels very natural to both the filmmaker and his cast, a world they’re comfortable telling their uncomfortable story in.
Obviously, this is not new or revolutionary territory. Benson is clearly a fan of such great character films as Interiors or some of Cassavetes’ finest work, and it shows, but he never fails to make the story of Eleanor and Conor a story he was meant to be able to tell.
And, in the end, as everything and nothing gets resolved, what we, as a viewer are left with, is two hours spent in the company of some wonderfully, horribly, truly real people and whatever frustrations we may have with them and the film in the end, there is no need to make excuses. Clearly, they couldn’t help themselves, and we need to accept it. Being truly real will do that to you.