By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 17, 2014 at 12:27PM
The existence of "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby" is one of the strangest things in recent American cinema. A first time writer-director, Ned Benson, managed to attract a killer cast at his first time at bat. The film, a New York-set relationship drama, was conceived, shot and screened at TIFF as a two-part, three-hour epic, subtitled "Him" and "Her," telling the same story from two different points of view (read our review). The Weinstein Company bought the rights.
Then, sometime in the intervening eight months, Benson and his distributor recut the film from scratch into a new two-hour entity, known as "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Them," which gets its first outing as part of Un Certain Regard at Cannes today. Then, all three versions will be released in theatres in the fall. If it's not quite without precedent (only this year "Nymphomaniac “followed a similar pattern, but was always conceived as such), then it's pretty remarkable. Going into cold to the two-hour "Them” cut, however, the same can't quite be said of the film, though there's a lot to admire, not least a brace of top-notch performances.
In this cut at least, we first meet Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain, and yes, it's a bit precious, but the film does at least explain the name away) and husband Connor (James McAvoy) on what seems to be an early date. A indeterminate amount of time later, and Eleanor jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge. She survives, but leaves Connor without a word, returning home to her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) and sister (Jess Weixler), and attempting to restart the college education she abandoned with the help of a kindly professor (Viola Davis), while Connor moves in with his own dad (Ciaran Hinds), and is left to bury himself in the struggling bar/restaurant he owns with best pal and chef Stuart (Bill Hader).
The film doesn't try hard to hide the root of the problems: the couple recently lost their baby son, and the relationship dissolved as a result. As such, it's a film that's predominately about grief, and most effective when that's what it's focusing on: as much as the characters try to hide or repress it, the loss haunts them -- and smartly, it's not just Eleanor and Conor who are bleeding, but their parents and friends too.
Even in this shortened version, every cast member gets a chance to shine, so it's little wonder that Benson was able to attract such a cast: he's written everyone a little showcase that lets them flex their muscles, and from legends like Hurt and Huppert to an against-the-grain choice like Hader, everyone impresses. Davis in particular seems to relish her role, and gives one of her most impressive turns.
But the film really belongs to McAvoy and Chastain, who do close to career-best work here: the former masks his pain with a jokey boyishness, the latter becoming increasingly sharp and furious, drowning under her grief. The film's never better when they're sharing the screen.
Benson also does a fine job behind the camera too: letting scenes play out unintrusively, capturing NYC with a woozy beauty, and generally showing that he has an excellent eye (on the evidence of this, "The Bling Ring" and "Night Moves," Christopher Blauveldt is fast becoming one of the best rising cinematographers out there). And for a film that must be something of a Frankenstein's Monster in terms of how it was assembled, it holds together reasonably well: aside from Eleanor's scenes having a sort of orange tinge and Conor's a blue, there's little to suggest that this will originally intended as two separate companion pieces.
Well, except that the finished product doesn't quite satisfy. I haven't seen the longer version (the Playlist correspondent who wrote the review of the TIFF cut is in Cannes, and will be writing on the differences between the two soon), so it's hard to say if I would have responded to that any differently, but for all of the excellent qualities displayed in the acting and filmmaking, it never quite punched me in the gut in the way I wanted it to. It's admittedly low key stuff, avoiding major emotional meltdowns and the like, but I suspect it's more a structural issue: with only glimpses shown of the couple before their tragedy, it's harder to feel the impact of the break.
It doesn't help that Benson is a better director than he is a writer. In places, the script works nicely, but all too often the dialogue is overwrought and a tough clunky, straining for poetry but coming across a bit sophomoric. That Benson has such a great cast does a lot to disguise it: this lot could read the operating manual to the Hadron Collider and make it sound powerful. But it still prevents the film from really singing, and from landing the emotional punches it seems to he aiming for.
It is very much a first film, albeit one of rare ambition, and there's every reason to think that Benson will nail it next time around. The film's absolutely worth watching for the performances alone, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued to catch the "Him" and "Her" versions down the line too (if nothing else, the whole project should be invaluable to film school lecturers in years to come). But in and of itself, the "Them" version of "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby" doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. [B-]