The conventional love story is a genre that can be told a multitude of ways. Most of them are tales of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, a la When Harry Met Sally. Others are stories of romances that for some reason or another, can never be, like Titanic.
And then some are movies which focus on two people beyond their happily ever after, which make for some of the most powerful entries in the genre. Blue Valentine. Juno. Even Pixar’s Up. And now The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, written and directed by Ned Benson.
Rigby tells the story of Conor and Eleanor (yes she is named after that Eleanor Rigby) as they deal with the aftermath of what the audience can only assume was the fallout of their previous relationship, which we only get glimpses of throughout the film.
It should be noted that Benson originally made two films for Rigby, one from Conor’s perspective and one from Eleanor’s, which have received nothing but rave reviews at movie festivals since its debut. Benson made one film, edited together from his two films, for wide release, and consequently we have The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them.
But in no way is it a lesser product than Benson’s duo of films. Rigby is one of the most brutally honest and bleakly hopeful films of the last few years. It is in itself a paradox which raises lots of questions about romance and rediscovering oneself beyond the breakup in which both parties are innocent of any wrongdoing.
Rigby starts off in a rather jarring way, with both Conor and Eleanor forced to cope with a newly fragmented relationship they both thought would never end. Conor is doing whatever he can to get Eleanor back; he is relentless almost to the point of recklessness. Eleanor, on the other hand, is confused as to what distraction will prove to be her next step in life.
They’re essentially lost souls trapped in another time and place.
Both are confused about their roles to the point that they don’t know why they do certain things while they’re in the middle of doing them. Conor at one point follows Eleanor around New York, but decided to break off without talking to her. Eleanor goes to classes just for the sake of doing something. They try to search for the people they were before, but Conor is the only one who realizes that being with Eleanor permanently changed him.
The concept sounds dreary and, frankly, depressing, but Benson’s excellent direction makes us believe there is some thread of destiny still connecting them. Even Eleanor sometimes yearns for the piece of herself she left in Conor.
The most emotionally charged moments come in the few scenes where Conor and Eleanor are together, not trying to work things out but trying to figure out what went wrong. Darkly contrasting them are the sparse peeks we get at their “happily ever after”, when they were young and innocent and didn’t think they would change. Essentially the film’s theme is summed up when Conor’s dad says, “A shooting star lasts only a second, but aren’t you glad to have at least seen it?”
The tone Benson employs justifies that statement to impressive effect. It’s an emotionally exhausting film; the audience is forced to go through the same ordeal as Conor and Eleanor. But we like being in their company, because Rigby isn’t about one person trying to redeem themselves from cheating or some other blow. It offers a different type of problem, one that may be incapable of being fixed.
The biggest reason for Rigby being so effective, by a long shot, are the dynamic, torturous performances of James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. It’s easy to say that their portrayals of Conor and Eleanor are their best to date. And that’s saying something for Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life), who has a Best Actress Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty. She continues to add to her superb resume as someone who should be talked about much more than she is.
McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, First Class, Wanted) also turns in a believable and supremely gloomy role as someone torn between going after lost love and moving on. He excels at balancing his hopelessness with the shock he goes through when he realizes the most important thing in his life is gone.
Bill Hader (SNL, Superbad) and Viola Davis (The Help) turn in great supporting roles as friends helping the couple to cope. The venerable William Hurt also appears in the film, and he is as fantastic as ever.
The film’s writing, also done by Ned Benson, is a thing of beauty. Conor and Eleanor never have too much to say because they’re too busy keeping to themselves, but when they do engage in conversation it is easy to see how transparent their lives have become. There is a melancholy tone in what they say which suggests that they both know they can’t fix things, but it still might be worth a try.
And that’s the main point that The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby gets across. Sometimes happily ever after lasts only a short while, and though something may end too soon, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cherish it.
In a Nutshell
Benson, a relatively as-yet-unknown, invents a superb effort of a broken relationship as viewed by both parties. Even though this is just an edit of the two original films he created, the message and impact is still prevalent and as powerful as ever, thanks in large part to two rising stars in McAvoy and Chastain. It is the anti-social twin of The Notebook, and that is in every way refreshing.
9 / 10 or If you’re tired of the conventional and cliched romance, and even if you’re not, check out this unique and pioneering film.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is rated R for language
Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain
Directed by: Ned Benson