October 14, 2014 | 6:05pm EST
There’s a scene in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her in which Connor (James McAvoy) sits in a classroom and sees the woman he loves. He asks if he can bother the man in front of him for a piece of paper and to borrow a pen. Unsure exactly what to say, he writes, “Hi.,” hands the folded note forward and asks, “Can you pass this to the girl with the red hair?”
It’s adorable, childish fun, a return to high school and nervous idealisation of romance. He’s perplexed, and perhaps a little crushed when she then storms out of the room. But this scene plays again. This time, the camera is fixed on Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), the girl with the red hair. When she reads the note she looks back to see the man she is running away from, the past from which taking classes was supposed to be a new start, and frightened she grabs her things and runs out.
This is the result of the one-of-a-kind structure of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her. First plays one film that tells a complete story and is capable of standing alone, called Him. Him is the tale of a man whose describes himself this way: “I’m 33-years old and my life is a fuckin’ boatwreck.” He struggles to keep his East Village restaurant open while coping with the fact that his wife has just tried to commit suicide and left him with hardly a word of goodbye. By itself, Him is touching and tragic and it makes viewers fall in love with, or at the very least sympathize with, Connor. Then Him ends, and another movie capable of standing alone begins. This one is, you guessed it, Her. It tells the story of a young wife who throws herself off the Manhattan Bridge and is pulled from the East River only to wake up in the hospital to her possessive, childish husband and becomes about her recovery process moving back in with her family.
Independently, Him and Her are moving and complex character portraits of the difficulties of marriage. But as Conner says in a flashback to their days young and in love, “There’s only one heart in this body,” and despite the two titles there is only one grand movie. Together, they are an exquisitely devastating presentation of grief. Connor and Eleanor recently lost their two-month old son, which is revealed in bits as Him presses forward. Presumably (rather obviously, but writer/director Ned Benson makes the mistake of assuming we all understand, whereas more development would have made for rich plot), this event — which is a tragedy beyond comprehension — marks the beginning of the end for the once madly in love couple. In Him we gain devastating insight to the way Connor feels, his helplessness and inability to say or do the right thing to help his wife through this. In Her, we learn that the first thing he did was store all their baby stuff in the closet and order Chinese food. Perception and memory affect everything.
This is the thesis of sorts for Benson’s project, and the first-time feature filmmaker executes this carefully but without subtlety. In a scene that is repeated in both halves, Connor says “We” in Him and “I” in Her, for example. These scenes are re-shot rather than simply repurposed, partly to correspond to the different color pallets they engage. The dialogue and other details change reflecting the way people remember things differently. This is most potent in attributing blame, and Benson’s greatest accomplishment in the writing is how well he captures the natural human tendency to blame oneself. In an early scene, Eleanor suggests, way too seriously, that Connor have an affair just to spice things up. After she leaves him, he does. When he tells her, full of regret, he doesn’t make excuses, he calls himself stupid and selfish. That’s in Him. The corresponding scene in Her plays differently, and he says, “You told me to, you left.” Which way it actually happened is not shown and completely not relevant. The way he remembers the moment he was genuine and regretful. The way she remembers it, he made it seem like she was asking for it.
This complex creation of a film is bound together by its stars, the eponymous him and her. James McAvoy is tremendous, perhaps the best he has ever been, in Him. He is a scared little kid, unsure of what to do about his marriage and how to balance the other pressures in his life. In the latter half, he goes too far in the other direction, risking becoming self-parody as the villain of Her. Chastain, on the other hand, is among the most talented stars working in the industry today. She is flawless in her relationships with her family and her husband, and presents a palpable sense of grief better than her counterpart.
The supporting cast of characters are important in ways that are not necessarily applicable to traditional narrative. Connor’s father and best friends, Eleanor’s family are the eyes through which we see who these two people truly are apart from their biased perceptions of one another. More importantly, it is through these relationships that the protagonists shape who they are. It is painfully convenient that the class Eleanor is taking is on the psychology of identity. Connor pulls things his says from things he has heard, mostly from his father. He tells Eleanor at their most emotionally transparent moment that before meeting her, he had no idea who he was, and is back into that anarchic struggle after she left.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby exists in three forms. I watched Him/Her, but at the discretion of the cinema, they may instead play Her/Him, both of which clock in at over three-hours. The time benefits the movie, as it never feels long and the prolonged submersion in the story boosts emotional connection. Her/Him is an equally complete portrait of their lives, but the scenes and characters play differently given the new order. While the first is a film about a man who is left by his wife and slowly puts together the explanation. The latter is a story of a depressed woman on the verge of suicide and a careful unraveling of the people affected by her grief. The third version, which was released first, is what Benson calls Them. Conceived by Harvey Weinstein for marketing reasons, this is a two-hour abridged version that composites the two into one movie about the end of a marriage that seems plain and unimaginitive by comparison.
One of the great mysteries going into the film revolved around the title, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. As you’ve probably deduced, that is “her” name, a tribute to the cute story that her parents met at a Beatles event and have the fortunate surname Rigby. “You must hate the Beatles,” says her professor. No, she just knows it is her name, and nothing else matters. “I look at all the lonely people where do they all come from,” the professor says, and Ele looks up at her confused. “It’s the Beatles song you’re named after.”