By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 12, 2013 at 6:12PM
"Tragedy is a foreign land," observes one of the characters in "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," which helps explain the movie's alien structure. While technically a three-hour immersion into the experience of a young New York couple dealing with the fallout of their infant child's death, "Eleanor Rigby" actually takes the form of two feature-length accounts. "Him" focuses on the plight of Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy), a struggling restauranteur living in the shadow of his successful father (Ciaran Hinds). "Her" is a portrait of his wife Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) as she aimlessly re-enrolls in college and argues with her own parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert). While that's more or less the full extent of both plot lines, they're complicated by the most innovative approach to an otherwise traditional narrative at the festival this year.
Labeled as a work in progress cut for its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Eleanor Rigby" has started its public life in discombobulated fashion by design: Writer-director Ned Benson conceived of his first feature as two distinct works that can be viewed together or separately, and they screened in Toronto in both orders. Most of the people who caught the movie early in the festival saw the subdued "Him" first and felt that was the appropriate start to a story completed by the emotional turmoil the Eleanor character endures in "Her." Having attended a screening that started with "Her," however, I'm not so sure it really matters. Listed on various sites as two distinct movies, the high concept project is a fascinatingly unique way of tackling the old adage that there's two sides to every story. It's so ambitious that, to no great surprise, it can't possibly live up to the strength of the premise.
But "Eleanor Rigby" retains a sense of intrigue for the exact same reason that it never manages to generate a rich plot on par with the gimmick. Other structurally experimental movies in recent years, from "The Usual Suspects" to "Memento," use the unorthodox storytelling approach to shake up genre conventions steeped in mystery from the outset, making them well-suited for equally cryptic techniques that bury tidbits of information in a puzzle-like fashion. "Eleanor Rigby" is a mystery only in the abstract: It provides two ways of exploring the aftermath of death, though the material is only intermittently of interest. And while both pieces of the entire package generally work independently of each other, they have just enough ingredients to necessitate a viewing of the whole thing.
In "Her," Eleanor is a powerful screen presence whose sadness reflects the Beatles song that her chic parents named her after. While staving off her husband's attempts to reignite their chemistry, she relies on help from her less troubled sister (Jess Weixler) to come out of her shell and attempt a normal single life. "Him" mainly involves Conor's attempts to block out his frustrations with the past by throwing himself into his failing restauraunt. Both versions find the characters leaning on their close friends until they've exhausted their ability to help out: Eleanor turns to a wry NYU professor (Viola Davis) to help her get through a disoriented state of romantic confusion, while Conor relies on his blasé longtime college pal (Bill Hader, convincing in a minor but noticeably dramatic role) for more advice than he probably should.
But those mirroring devices are fairly slight. The only real intersection of the two segments arises with a pair of exchanges that play in fundamentally different ways, hinting at an approach that explores how individual experiences of the same event can leave distinctly separate impacts on people with varying perspectives. But these passing contrasts go only so far in justifying a sprawling narrative conceit that meanders more often than it barrels ahead toward any kind of satisfying climax. Still, the calibration of mature performances and a reasonably credible, if somewhat familiar, scenario make "Eleanor Rigby" a lot more watchable than the strange conceit of the production.
A ridiculously ambitious first feature for Benson, its proficiencies bode well for his career, though it's hard not to wonder if the movie asks more of its audience than it earns. The Weinstein Company, which purchased the movie for U.S distribution in Toronto, will have to think carefully about how to handle its eventual release. As a single package, it invites greater expectations than the run-of-the-mill storytelling can possibly reach. If possible, the distributor may want to consider releasing "Him" and "Her" separately, presenting an opportunity for audiences to try one narrative and then seek out the other if they're sufficiently intrigued.
Whatever happens with it, "Eleanor Rigby" at the very least succeeds at depicting the ambiguity of communication embedded in every relationship. "When we were together, everything was clear," Conor tells his wife at one point. "Now, I'm not so sure." That's the essence of "Eleanor Rigby" no matter which order it takes.
Criticwire grade: B