The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is about perspective. Perspective of the relationship that Connor (James McAvoy) has with his wife, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain). And perspective of the relationship that Eleanor has with her husband, Connor. If those perspectives sound like they belong in the same movie, writer/director Ned Benson has made it very clear that distinction between the two is key.
Ten years ago, Benson wrote a script called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which was about a crumbling marriage as seen through the eyes of the husband. He gave the script to a young actress named Jessica Chastain, who liked it, but thought the wife role was underwritten. A few years later, Benson gave her another script of the same story, only now the marriage was viewed from the wife’s perspective. Benson said he planned to shoot both scripts simultaneously, and release them as two separate feature films. Such is the genesis of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and its counterpart, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her. Two films, two perspectives, one vision.
Eleanor has the luxury of hiding in a large, suburban home, but Connor is forced to stick it out in New York. In Him, Connor tries to maintain his city apartment while keeping his shitty dive bar in business. When Connor gets word that Eleanor has started taking college courses in the city, he seeks her out, longing to reconnect by any means necessary. In many ways, Connor is the antithesis of Eleanor. He’s jovial, free spirited – constantly trying to do right by the people around him. But he too is in pain. Pain from what he’s lost, and pain from what he fears he won’t get back. Much like Eleanor, we get to know Connor partly through the people he leans on, including his affable best friend (Bill Hader) and his no nonsense father (Ciarán Hinds).
Most of Him and Her play out separately, though they both share a few key sequences. There’s a scene in both films, for example, in which Eleanor and Connor rent a car together and drive aimlessly. Their destination is nowhere, their goal is discovery. They pull over and begin to share an intimate moment. If you pay close attention to the scene in both films, you’ll notice subtle differences. The position of their bodies, the tone of their voices; who says I love you first, who stays silent. These shared scenes are the best moments of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, because they poignantly question the reliance of memory, and the distinction of perception. In Her, we aren’t watching Connor, we’re watching Eleanor’s perception of Connor. Same applies to Connor’s perception of Eleanor in Him. Interestingly, the perceptions they have of each other are often kinder versions of who those people really are. Meaning, Eleanor in Him is nicer than Eleanor in Her. You’d think it’d be the other way around, that Connor might remember Eleanor as cold and heartless. Instead, through Connor’s eyes, she’s gentler and more appealing.
There are other differences as well. Much of Her is bathed in a warm palette, a stark contrast to the ice-cold look of Him. Chastain is often shot from behind in Her, the focus harshly dipping in and out, as if we’re unsure where Eleanor is going. McAvoy is often shot from the front in full focus in Him, his path somewhat clearer, but still unseen by us. Collectively, both versions of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby paint a wholly fascinating and accurate portrayal of a modern romance.
After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Benson, at the behest of his producer, Harvey Weinstein, decided to create a third cut of a film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, which is a two hour version of both films edited together. By all accounts, Them is an inferior version to Him (89 minutes long) and Her (100 minutes). I was lucky enough to view both Him and Her in one sitting at a theater in Los Angeles. After, Chastain held a Q&A in which she did her best to not be overly critical of Them. Her ultimate point was that Him and Her are about two distinct perspectives, and when you edit them together, it’s unclear whose perspective we’re watching. In Him, we know that Eleanor is always Connor’s version of Eleanor. In Them, we have no idea if she’s Eleanor or “Eleanor.” But whether it be Him or Her or Them, Benson and Chastain (who co-produced the films) deserve endless credit for being audacious enough to present the same story in different ways. The common maxim states that there are two sides to every story. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her makes it clear that truer words have never been spoken. A-