Film: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him + The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her
Director: Ned Benson
Primary Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciaran Hinds, Nina Arianda, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Jess Weixler
US Release Date: 10 October 2014
Him? Her? Them? Who?
I’ve been waiting for the Him and Her versions of Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby to be available for streaming ever since I heard that the Them version of the film was not really in line with the director’s vision for the work. If you’ve been doing the same, then you’ll be glad to know that that Him and Her are both on Netflix now. Hooray.
Essentially, Him and Her are two sides of one film. Together, they tell the story of a grief-stricken couple. Separately, each focuses more closely on the perspective and experiences of the member of that couple who uses whichever pronoun is in the title. While you certainly could choose to watch either Him or Her on its own, I would advise you not to do so. Like spouses-out-of-sync Conor (McAvoy) and Eleanor (Chastain), the two films are pulled together by all that they share. Moreover, not watching the films together as a single work would also cause one to miss out on all of the work that Benson does to call attention to the importance and to the power of perspective. In fact, one of the film’s clearest goals is to demonstrate that even when two people share as many experiences as Conor and Eleanor do, they do not experience them or understand them in the same way.
Anyway. If you are going to watch some version or combination of versions of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, make sure to include both Him and Her and to regard them as a single work.
I’m not going to include a full summary because, “story of a grief-stricken couple” (see above) is really all you need to know. They live in NYC. They are married but they are (figuratively) miles apart. Now you know.
While the film has its weaknesses and does not always achieve all of its aims, the fact that it aims as high as it does helps to keep the whole thing afloat. While this story of romance on the rocks and of two individuals struggling under the weight of personal tragedy does drag a bit in spots, it is also beautifully told and genuinely touching. It’s not perfect, but it’s a strong and rather promising debut from Ned Benson nonetheless.
Him and Her: The Importance of Individual Perception and Experience
While an exploration of the power and complexities of individual perspective could easily be more layered than The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby manages to be, some of the ways that that Benson plays with perspective still manage to be quite interesting and do add to the nuance and to the emotional effectiveness of the whole film.
When scenes depicting the same events or containing the same dialogue appear in both Him and Her, they are seldom identical. At the same time, however, (with one or two exceptions) the differences between them are not conspicuous. A slightly different phrase here, an altered tone of voice there—such details are easy to miss if you aren’t looking for them, but they can greatly alter one’s experience and understanding of a situation, especially when they are allowed to build up over the 7-years of shared history that exist between Conor and Eleanor.
Even if they do not notice all the specific differences in those scenes that occur in both films, viewers are likely to come away with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby with the feeling that there is a certain disconnect between the way that Conor and Eleanor each understand their time together and that no one can ever really turn to memory as a source of objective truth—while the ideas that inform this aspect of the film are not necessarily original, Benson’s commitment to them does enrich the film.
I also appreciate the fact that the film does its best not to take sides. Conor and Eleanor both experience their relationship and process their grief in their own way, and neither of them is wrong to do so. By presenting the film in two halves as he does, Benson suggests a certain equality between his two protagonists. Him and Her are both sincere and depict the lives of individuals who are doing their best to cope with tragedy, and there is really no reason for viewers to come away with the film thinking that either Conor or Eleanor is more correct or has a better grip on the reality of their (collective or individual) situation than the other.
And of course, even though they process, react to, and understand certain things in different ways, what Conor and Eleanor share is just as important to the film as what they don’t. As different as their individual reactions to their grief might seem at first, they both try to run away from facing the reality of their shared tragedy. In the end, I suspect that they both find that they can’t really do so. And of course, that the final scenes of both parts of the film (and especially of the Her portion) are dedicated to a certain implied reconnection of the two protagonists is also important. No matter how differently they may understand certain aspects of their time together, there is still something that ties these two together—a certain bond between them that, though it may weaken at times, prevents them from ever being entirely separate.
Other Things That Work
While McAvoy and Chastain are both fine actors in their own right, it is Chastain who really steals the show. As the suicidal and almost ghost-like Eleanor, and as a woman trying to find herself again after 7 years of marriage and the loss of a child, she is absolutely fantastic. She is beautiful, distant, sympathetic, and complex, and she makes it nearly impossible for viewers to take their eyes off of her or to ignore the complexity and the sheer scale of her pain. Her is the stronger and more compelling half of the film, and Chastain’s talent (as well as the way her character is written) has a lot to do with this.
Chastain’s stand-out performance aside, the rest of the cast also give strong performances. McAvoy does a fine job with what he is given and (as he has shown many times) makes for a perfectly watchable male lead. Bill Hader (as Conor’s friend/employee), Viola Davis (as Eleanor’s professor), and Ciaran Hinds (as Conor’s father) also give notable performances.
Another thing that works is the way that Benson chooses first to suggest and then to confirm that Conor and Eleanor are haunted by the loss of a child. Conor and Eleanor can’t process the traumatic event and will not acknowledge it fully. Consequently, they do all they can not to mention it, not to talk about it, not to make it real. Benson mirrors their collective denial by confirming the reality of the tragedy gradually, and by often using characters other than Conor and Eleanor to do so.
For what it’s worth, the film is also shot in a sort of slow and melancholy way that fits the subject matter quite nicely.
Where it Falters
While I have no problem with slow films, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a bit too slow for its own good. In its desire to present a realistic and unsensationalized portrait of Conor and Eleanor, the film sometimes drags more than is ideal. This is particularly apparent in the Him section of the film. While Her is actually a little bit longer than Him, it does not feel like it. Yes, grief is a slow process, but The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby could be improved by some better pacing all the same.
Pacing aside, the Him section of the film is also somewhat hindered by the fact that Conor simply does not make for an interesting or as engaging a protagonist as Eleanor. Certainly, not everyone falls into an easily visible suicidal depression after a loss, but Conor is too opaque and doesn’t come across as someone who has experienced devastating loss as often as he should. I understand the the film wants to present two people who grieve and react to trauma differently, but that does not change the fact that Her is more engaging and much more emotionally affecting than Him.
Also, where Her takes the the ghost of Eleanor that is presented in Him and turns it into a full-fledged person, the film never fleshes out Conor in quite the same way.
Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. If you have anything at all to add, please do so with a comment below. Also, if any of my fellow film bloggers would be interested in doing some sort of collaboration, please shoot me an email or a PM on twitter. I’ve never done anything like that before, but I would definitely be up for it.