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Movie review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him
November 6, 2014

Movie review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him

Told from husband’s point of view, story of a breakup is at times moving but has too little going for it

She is morbidly depressed, feels unloved and unsupported by her husband, and now she has told him perhaps he should have an affair, “to shake things up.” Although we infer there must have been signs over the past six months that their marriage was on the rocks, her abrupt suggestion shocks him to the core, and when she ends up in the hospital and tells him perhaps they should “take a break,” his world falls apart.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him is one of two films that tell the story of the dissolution of this couple’s relationship and how they deal with it together and separately. In this part, all the focus is on “him,” and to this film’s credit, we get the key scene above, which incomprehensibly is missing from the other. He is Conor, she is Eleanor, and although they have been together for seven years, the elephant in the room is the death of their son, Cody, six months earlier, which has torn them from each other’s arms and sent them on a downward spiral they won’t escape without a major commitment to change their own lives.

Rating: ***½
Directed by Ned Benson
With James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain

Although we don’t see the events exactly from his point of view — given the imminent release of devices such as Google Glass, such an experimental approach, which would be infinitely more interesting, may be in the cards in the near future — and our relationship to the characters and their story is still rather oblique, our presence with Conor is significant, especially when the complementary film is taken into account.

The duality, which leads to a deliberate Rashomon-like inconsistency between the scenes, is also very clearly referenced by the film poster of Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin féminin that adorns the wall inside Conor’s and Eleanor’s flat. In Her, the same is accomplished by means of the poster of another French film, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (un Homme et une Femme), which has pride of place in Eleanor’s bedroom.

While Eleanor is gone from his life, Conor has to deal with the slow financial ruin of his business, the sudden flirting by one of his waitresses, the proposal of his father (played to perfection by Ciarán Hinds) that he take over his successful restaurant, and his persistent desire to continue seeing Elenor, which leads him to one of the back rows in a class she is taking. We get all of this from his side, and Her tells Eleanor’s story, including spotting him in that row at the back of the class.

However, this film sounds more interesting than it really is, and much of this disappointment has to do with the filmmaking itself. Of course, one can discuss the problematic foundation on which our experience hinges, namely the requirement that we watch two films to understand the story rather than just the one, and to solve this, there is a third film (Them), which further underscores the patently commercial nature of this venture.

The problem with the production is that director Ned Benson does not always play by his own rules: In one case, when Conor makes a phone call to his friend, Stuart (Bill Hader), who is also the chef at the rundown pub he owns, the camera suddenly cuts to Stuart inside a coffee shop — and even worse, to Stuart’s point of view inside the café. This kind of visual incoherence (that verges on utter recklessness) is astounding, given the basic premise of the film, which is that we follow Conor and are prevented from seeing the picture from a divine or objective perspective.

The fragments all add up to a feeling that we are not watching one person’s story but rather half of a couple’s ability to cope with their situation, and there is a constant, nagging feeling that even when it comes to Conor, we are not following his development as much as the film simply depicts a world of heartbreak and incompleteness. Such an experimental strategy may have theoretical value, but it does not make for an immersive experience. There is no satisfaction, because it is made clear that this is one side of the story, and the film naively pretends that the story of a couple cannot be told subjectively.

Had we watched one film and felt we had most of the story down, before realizing upon watching the second part that in fact there was far more than met the eye the first time, the films would have produced a rich texture of entertainment, insight and surprise. Instead, even if we watch both parts, most of our questions remain unanswered, the world is pretty much as we guessed it is, and the picture we get of the story is not particularly colorful.

While the idea seems to be that the viewer will have the same experience watching the two films comprising The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby in either order, it may be a better idea to watch Him first, as this film presents the broadest outlines of the story, contains much less silence and hums along with more energy than its counterpart.Oddly enough, the two films are not the same length (at 90 minutes, Him is 10 minutes shorter than Her). Also, because the two do not have the same structure, a repeat of the exhilarating exercise that was 1964’s Anatomy of a Marriage: My Days with Jean-Marc and Anatomy of a Marriage: My Days with Françoise is out of the question: The time in the worlds of these latter two French films by André Cayatte overlapped with precision, and therefore the works have sometimes been shown simultaneously on two channels, allowing viewers to flip between two points of view at their leisure.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him has some grand moments, including a knockout climactic scene in the couple’s flat that brings the message home that different people deal with tragedies in different ways. But for all one can say about their approach to the material in general, and James McAvoy’s compelling performance in particular, the two films neither touch us nor make us reflect on the heartbreak that accompanies the end of a long-term relationship, and especially if we’ve paid twice the normal ticket price, that is a very unfulfilling place to arrive at after more than three hours of our time.

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