“Do I look like a different person to you?”
Before Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby comes to a close, both Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) are forced to ask this of friends and family and even one another. The film is a whole mess of things, but at heart it’s a poignant character study of the divergent ways in which people experience and cope with tragedies, and a powerful reminder that those often have a blanket reach. They spiral outward, consuming everybody within their immediate radius. But for everybody who knows Conor or Eleanor, there’s not much to say to either of them.
They also have nothing to say to each other. Not after the aforementioned tragedy, which caused a schism in their relationship that may well be irreparable, and certainly not after Eleanor’s grieving process drives them even further apart, the geographical divide only adding to the cavernous emotional disconnect between them. (Eleanor notes at one point that their marriage pre-separation concerned two people “a million miles away in the same room.”) While Eleanor heads home to live with her warm but stiff-shirted father (William Hurt) and manic mother (Isabelle Huppert), Conor lodges with his scattered father (Ciaran Hinds) while attempting to keep his flailing restaurant afloat.
This isn’t actually the whole story of Eleanor and her disappearance of sorts, mind you. The version of Benson’s feature-length debut that’s made it to theaters has been subtitled Them, a synthesized cut. Benson initially made two films, Him and Her, and this version excises a little over an hour of material between them. (Them is the version screened at this year’s Cannes, and the two individual films will see limited release next month.) As such, certain motifs fail to linger; Hurt delivers a monologue late in the film that, while powerful, appears to be missing some prelude and context, and the comic beats involving Bill Hader as Conor’s best friend/head chef and the rest of his harried staff feel out of sync when juxtaposed with the pensive, quiet heartache of Eleanor’s struggles with moving forward.
For the most part, Benson keeps his larger ideas intact, powerfully so on occasion. While it’s clear from early on that more of Eleanor’s perspective made the tandem cut than Conor’s, it works because of the latest in a recent line of great performances from Chastain. After a beautiful, vibrant opening sequence depicting their onetime dine-and-dash from a New York City restaurant, the film immediately moves on to a sequence that will likely steal the air from any room in which it’s watched, made all the more dreadful by what’s kept off-screen. And from there, the film moves almost seamlessly between past and present, the fragments of Conor and Eleanor’s onetime romance achingly juxtaposed with the lost, disconnected fog in which they both live at present.
Eleanor’s story leaves her so bereft of other ideas for handling day-to-day life that she heads back to college and takes up with a caustic but empathetic professor (Viola Davis) who recognizes Eleanor both as a woman of substantial intelligence and life and one who’s been beaten down by the very same over time. There’s a conversational, casual ease to their scenes; where McAvoy’s exchanges with family and friends take the film in a more melodramatic direction, Chastain’s scenes offer a more nuanced portrait of how truly difficult it is to realize that no matter what you’ve been through, the world will keep moving with or without you.
The film almost recalls Blue Valentine in its touching lapses into the ether of human memory, capturing with ease the fury of new love and the agony of its slow erosion over time in the same scene. But some of the gritty naturalism of that film might have been welcome here. The more plot-driven The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby becomes at times (perhaps due in part to the film’s need to make sense of itself in truncated form), the less interesting it ultimately is. But when it explores the truly unspeakable — and indeed the film is wise to hold its larger revelations until late and even then only sketches in its particular details — it’s a film that captures in small gestures the chasm that tragedy leaves in the lives of those concerned.