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TIFF Review: 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her' Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis & More

by Nikola Grozdanovic
September 10, 2013 10:55 AM
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You’d think that with all the sappy romantic comedies that exist, "When Harry Met Sally" and Richard Linklater’s 'Before...' series (just to name the most beloved), that relationship films have run their course and said all they’ve got to say. But then this year the Palme D’Or was awarded to a film that deals with the evolution of a single relationship in a potent and tender way, and while many talked about the importance of the film in terms of sexual politics, this reviewer looked at "Blue is the Warmest Color" more as a remarkably well made relationship film. Now it has some serious competition.

Filmmaker Ned Benson has been working on his “Eleanor Rigby” project for over 7 years. Having met Jessica Chastain 10 years ago, during a film festival where she saw and fell in love with one of his shorts, the project became something of a passion for the two of them. Chastain’s best friend Jess Weixler became involved and the idea of telling a story about a seismic incident that can topple a strong relationship between a man and a woman began to develop. Chastain has even mentioned that Benson would visit her on set of Terrence Malick’s "Tree of Life" to write pages of his story and get inspired by Malick’s method (there’s an unmistakable Malickian influence in the tone of “Eleanor Rigby”). What began as a story about a woman, written specifically for Chastain, started to grow into something much deeper and bigger, until Benson realized the potential of a pretty ingenious concept: telling the same story from two different perspectives: "Him" and "Her." Benson then took the idea further, screening both versions back-to-back at TIFF with the “Him” section showing first, although the ultimate intention is that the films be released separately and present audiences with a choice as to which one they watch first.

Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece "Rashomon" heralded the term “Rashomon effect,” which refers to the contradictory nature of different perspectives telling the same story (something that has been employed endlessly in the years since, mostly in the context of twisty thrillers). Used effectively, it remains one of the most powerful ways interrogating truth and subjectivity? One of many strengths of Benson’s "Eleanor Rigby" is precisely that kind of exploration because it's built into the conceptual framework of the film and the structure alone allows the film(s) to become something much more than just another relationship film. The story revolves around a couple who have been together for 7 years; Connor (James McAvoy) is a 33-year-old bar-owner and Eleanor (Chastain) is struggling with unhappiness and needs a change. One day, she decides to start from scratch and disappear from Connor’s life, asking him not to contact her nor to try and find her. In “Him”, we follow Connor as he talks to his friends (including his chef played by the priceless Bill Hader) and his father (Ciaran Hinds, in a very nuanced and endearing performance), trying to understand the situation and dealing with such an impactful change in his life. In “Her” we see some of the same events that transpired in “Him” but from Eleanor’s vantage point, as she attempts to make some kind of meaningful change in her life with the help of her family (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert are her parents and Weixler is her sister) and her teacher (Viola Davis, in easily her best role since "The Help"). How do you move on? Where does “you” stop and “us” begin? Can a person truly change? These questions and more percolate in Benson’s epic story of love, life, loss, happiness and family.

Perhaps it sounds all a bit too Hallmark (to use one of the characters phrases), and in the hands of some of other less talented artists these kinds of stories can nosedive straight into the territory of some bad made-for-cable Lifetime movie. But Benson’s multi-layered, organically paced, delicate and quite often hilarious screenplay holds it all together with wit and brio. He was also fortunate enough to land a perfect ensemble cast. McAvoy has never been better; obviously comfortable with the role and completely understanding of Connor’s confusion, he looks relaxed and is inherently likable from the very first frame. Chastain’s Eleanor is cold and distant compared to Connor, but as the delicate actress that she is, she gives all of herself and delivers another highly nuanced, human character. The rest of the supporting cast, including the perfect fathers Hinds and Hurt, the wine-drinking Huppert going through a “quiet crisis” and the cynically hilarious and gentle soul that is Viola Davis all just add to the overall strength of the film.

We’ve tip-toed carefully around the pivotal incident which is at the core of the film, because it’s something that is best discovered within the journey, layer by layer. What makes “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” truly stand apart from all the other films of its kind, be they French art-house award winners, your mother’s favorite Meg Ryan movie or the myriad of romantic comedies out there, is the emotional depth that is allowed to be dug by the film’s premise and length, executed almost perfectly. There are many meandering moments where you might find yourself thinking, “where is this going” and you will be forming opinions about these people which undoubtedly affect your judgment of the movie, but that’s all part of the bigger picture Benson is painting. Like an epic sonnet, with beautiful accompanying music and songs, “Eleanor Rigby” deals with memory, perception and the emotional toll a relationship can have on an individual as much as it deals with the more grandiose themes of love and loss. It’s a finely tuned and tenderly detailed love story of two people told on a cosmic scale, and it’s one of the year’s greatest relationship films. [A-]

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  • Gail D. | September 11, 2013 12:17 AMReply

    I must have missed something because so far this festival (TIFF 2013) this is the worst film I have seen. I struggled through it for about half the film and finally gave up. I was not alone in walking out and would not recommend the film despite a wonderful cast. Comparing this film to a masterpiece like Rashomon is shocking.

  • Daniel | January 8, 2014 3:08 AM

    Could you please tell me what the'pivotal incident' is in the film?

  • John | September 13, 2013 5:53 PM

    Why would you walk out? You're literally there to see films, thats all you have to do. You can't sit through it and try to digest it as opposed to leaving and assumingly doing shit. People who walk out of films are pretentious shits who think they are more important than they are.

  • Scriptmistress | September 10, 2013 5:48 PMReply

    I read this script back in 2006 and have never forgotten it. Hundreds of scripts later, it is still the most emotionally intense and authentic thing I have ever read. I can't wait to see both films!

  • Daniel | January 8, 2014 3:08 AM

    Could you please tell me what the'pivotal incident' is in the film?

  • Batman | September 10, 2013 5:37 PMReply

    This was such an honest and amazing film. The soundtrack was phenomenal. I want to see it again already.

  • STEVE | September 10, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    Was afraid this would be amazing. I have a ticket to this and Can a Song Save Your Life on Saturday but because of the 3+ hour runtime they overlap.

    Interested to see how they decide to roll this out..

  • oogle monster | September 10, 2013 3:00 PMReply

    Waiting for Sheyla to comment on how Marion Cottilard is amazing in The Immigrant....

  • owdl114 | September 10, 2013 4:06 PM

    Can I do it if 'Sheyla' doesn't??

  • Adam | September 10, 2013 1:39 PMReply

    I'm curious whether the choice of which film to watch first actually has an effect on the viewers interpretation of the story. Do you think seeing "His" story first makes you more sympathetic to his pov (or vice versa)?

  • masatom | September 10, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    I have a lot of respect for everything Chastain is part of, her choices are both interesting and smart.

  • BEF | September 10, 2013 12:31 PMReply

    Wow, to be a struggling filmmaker invited to Malick's set to be inspired and write ... what a good friend and collaborator Chastain is/was to this director.

  • carlos | September 10, 2013 12:30 PMReply

    Chastain + Huppert = I'm there

  • Justin | September 10, 2013 12:24 PMReply

    I agree nikola, TDOER was impressively well done for dual movies with such an expansive scope. I was most impressed with the excellent score and soundtrack benson developed for both films.

  • Pedro | September 10, 2013 12:21 PMReply

    You call the "Richard Linklater’s 'Before...' series" SAPPY romantic comedy?

  • Jonnybon | September 11, 2013 7:01 AM

    I'm assuming the writer of the article has not seen the films. Horrendous choice of word.

  • Nik G. | September 10, 2013 7:19 PM

    Woah woah.. Mind the commas. I love the Before series and they are in no way sappy. Just Needed to make that clear.

  • Mia | September 10, 2013 12:09 PMReply

    I'm so glad the films are getting such a good response. I love the concept and McAvoy and Chastain are favourites of mine. I hope they release the films soon!

  • Ash | September 10, 2013 11:50 AMReply

    thank you for the review! I really hope this one could be released in 2013!

  • seb | September 10, 2013 11:24 AMReply

    why doesn't he just make it the 1 film? you could have 2 chapters that both go for 90 mins, making for a 3 hour epic like Blue is the warmest color. if its one film then it will be appreciated as a singular work, which I think is much more appropriate. if its 2 films, then people may not see the 2nd one. just make it the 1 film dude

  • J | September 10, 2013 12:59 PM

    I entirely agree. A novel idea is not necessarily a good one.

  • Carlos | September 10, 2013 11:12 AMReply

    That's a rather short review for two movies.

    Anyway, now I'm even more excited for this movie(s).

  • Maybe? | September 10, 2013 12:16 PM

    Read it twice.

  • 1974 | September 10, 2013 11:03 AMReply

    Thank God!

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