Weak story strands terrific cast in relationship drama ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’
Freud once famously asked, “What do women want?” It’s a question that continues to confound some people, especially Ned Benson, writer and director of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. In a film that purports to examine the anatomy of a marital breakup, and the couple’s halting, last-ditch attempts to put the pieces back together, Benson thinks he’s telling the story from both the male perspective of husband James McAvoy, and the female perspective of wife Jessica Chastain. But whatever it is that drives the wife to behave as she does remains as elusive to Benson and the audience as it is to her perplexed husband.
Benson tried to be so scrupulously even-handed in spinning his tale that he originally made two feature films. Subtitled Him and Her, one from the husband’s viewpoint, the other from the wife’s, both played at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. He cut the two films together in this version, (subtitled Them) for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and whatever might have been left on the cutting room floor—what you see onscreen—is what you get in terms of character motivation.
While the husband’s agenda seems pretty straightforward, we can never figure out what’s up with the wife. Giving Chastain more screen time than McAvoy is not the same as actually exploring her character and understanding what makes her tick.
This is a shame because the actions of Chastain’s character, Eleanor Rigby (and, yes, she was supposedly named after the Beatles song) are so pivotal to the plot. After a prologue in which Eleanor and Conor (McAvoy) are seen as a blissfully happy young couple literally running out on the check at a pricey New York City bistro, we see Eleanor in the present day (seven years later) walking deliberately across a bridge over the river in a way that doesn’t bode well.
Fished out in time, she retreats to the comfy home in suburban Westport belonging to her parents, a university professor (William Hurt) and his French-born, former concert violinist wife (Isabelle Huppert).
Conor, meanwhile, operates a failing bar, commiserates with his best pal Stuart (Bill Hader), his chef, and tries to keep track of Eleanor, who has stopped taking his calls. Temporarily moving back in with his own father, a famed restaurateur (Ciarán Hinds), Conor is still in love with Eleanor, and while he doesn’t want to crowd her, he’s desperate to try to reconcile.
Sandwiched in between more flashbacks to their giddy early romance are portentous hints that something terrible ruptured their relationship. But even when we finally learn what it was, Benson is sketchy on the details, and no one ever addresses their own feelings about it. Instead, McAvoy’s pliant Conor longs palpably, while Eleanor acts out (usually involving hot and cold sexual teasing). Benson prefers to view her as Conor does, as some sort of mysterious goddess, but this robs the character of any human dimension that might make her actions make sense.
The recurring subtext about women’s ambivalence toward motherhood also lacks subtlety and conviction. (Does Huppert’s character have to have a glass of wine in her hand at all hours, in every single scene, to show how disappointed she is?) What passes for Eleanor’s heart-to-hearts with other women never amount to much. For that matter, why would any Beatles fan, even with the surname “Rigby,” name their daughter after a character in a song who dies unloved and alone? Seriously?
What the film has going for it is an excellent cast who all do their damnedest to put the story over. Too bad auteur Benson couldn’t hold up his share.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY**1/2 (out of four) With James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by Ned Benson. A Weinstein Company release. Rated R. 122 minutes.