This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
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 “The Disappearance of 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 for an 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.
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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 of 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, and the structure allows the film(s) to become something much more than just another relationship movie. 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, 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 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 paints. 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-]