Toronto: 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' Wows at Fest But Still Needs a Distributor (Analysis)
(L-R) Actress/ producer Jessica Chastain, filmmaker Ned Benson and actor James McAvoy arrive at the "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Him And Her" Premiere during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival at The Elgin on September 9, 2013 in Toronto, Canada.
James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain shine in Ned Benson's groundbreaking three-hour, two-part film that quite literally shows both sides of the same story.
TORONTO -- Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Monday and screened again Tuesday afternoon, when I caught up with it. The three-hour film offers a unique moviegoing experience by showing different sides of the same story, but not in the same film; instead, it is composed of two parts -- Him and Her, or, as they were ordered today, Her and Him -- both of which show two young people falling in love, but one of which shows how the man (James McAvoy) experienced the eventual disintegration of the relationship and the other how the woman did (Jessica Chastain) experienced it. In short, it is a film which submits that there are two sides to every story, both of which deserve to be considered before formulating any conclusions.
Certain facts are beyond dispute: Seven years after they first met, Eleanor (Chastain) and Connor (McAvoy) are married but reeling from the loss, six months earlier, of their first child. (The cause of death is never addressed.) Understandably, they are both devastated, but she is less able to move on with her life than he is, and he doesn't know how to help her. One day, Eleanor decides that she can take it no longer, breaks up with Connor and jumps off a bridge in a suicide attempt -- which she survives. After that, she moves back in with her parents, and he shortly thereafter moves back in with his father.
Henceforth, as much as they wish to leave the past behind them, it trails them always, in one way or another: he is haunted by her (no less than Jimmy Stewart by Kim Novak in Vertigo), and she is haunted by the child (unable to even look in a mirror any more because any image of herself reminds her of her child -- which probably explains why she chops off her hair, buries her face under heavy makeup, shades her eyes behind sunglasses and tries her best to simply disappear).
But their versions of events -- their justifications for their actions -- differ in subtle but significant ways that show how two people can grow apart: over who initiated certain things (she's on top of him in her recollection of a romantic encounter, he's on top in his); who first spurned whom (he says "I love you" and she responds "I know" in hers, and vice versa in his); how certain facts first came to light (he admits to sleeping with another woman in his, she intuits it in hers); etc.
Like the great film Blue Valentine (2010), in the sense that we see a relationship come together and fall apart within one sitting. But, whereas a man might be predisposed to relate to and sympathize with the man in that film, or a woman with the woman, it is much harder to fall back upon our own experiences and biases in this film because, regardless of the order in which you watch its two parts, you feel more empathetic toward the characters whose part you are watching than you do toward the other. As Atticus Finch famously says in To Kill a Mockingbird, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." This film offers you that chance.
What makes this long and often sad journey worth taking is the opportunity to see two of the world's finest young film talents at the top of their game.
McAvoy, a handsome guy who effortlessly radiates decency, has done understated but impressive work in a great many films over the last few years, including The Last King of Scotland (2006), Atonement (2007) and The Last Station (2009). I don't think it's a coincidence that his co-stars in each of the aforementioned pictures received Oscar nominations; I do think that it's an injustice that he did not.
And then there's Chastain -- the star of The Help (2011), The Tree of Life (2011) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), all of which were released within the last two years -- whom I would submit, having carefully considered the matter, is the best actress of her generation. Moreover, thanks to her effervescent beauty, her hypnotic persona, and her inimitable little laugh, one never doubts that a man could become obsessed with her -- or haunted by her.
The film also features fine supporting work by Chastain's hero Isabelle Huppert,William Hurt, Bill Hader and especially Viola Davis and Ciaran Hinds, some of whom could find some awards traction of their own if this film is ever given a fair hearing.
Chastain: Big plans for two-part movie 'Eleanor Rigby'
Depending on which screening one attended here in the film fest, the order was swapped. (This reporter saw His version first, shown from the point of view of James McAvoy's character Conor, whose grieving wife cuts him off completely.)
Her, cut at its own feature length, followed, with just a few seconds of black in between. Chastain plays Conor's wife, Eleanor, and in Her, the dissolution of their marriage plays out from a different vantage point. Though many scenes are the same, subtle changes in dialogue and camera placement allow for a re-examination of where fault lies.
Chastain says she had no idea how the festival audience would react to the film mash-up. "I was scared to death people would walk out after the first film. And they didn't," she says. Director Ned Benson, Chastain's friend of 10 years, wrote Him first, and had the idea to write a companion piece (with Chastain in mind) later.
But how will U. S. audiences experience Eleanor Rigby? That's the conundrum the filmmakers are facing as the film is up for sale in Toronto. "It's going to stay two movies," says Chastain, who hopes theaters will offer a double feature of both movies. "No matter who comes in, we're not going to cut an hour out and make one film." Producer Cassandra Kulukundis adds that they are not considering a VOD-to-theater launch. "We made this as a cinematic experience," she says.
Next up for Chastain is Christopher Nolan's star-packed Interstellar, shooting now in Iceland. "You understand when you're working with him why his films are so good," she says.