The two joined halves of Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, called Her and Him, form a cumulative portrait of grief where no one is able to articulate the loss or cope with the jumble of emotions it unleashes. Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) and husband Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) don’t discuss the death of their infant son, but it colors every aspect of their relationship. That moment separates them from the future they had envisioned -– and from each other.
Her and Him are two sides of the same coin that employ different currency. Writer and director Benson’s ambitious two-feature debut reflects Eleanor’s and Conor’s states of mind in two subjective narratives. Him is resolutely linear, like Conor’s one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach to life, while Her stumbles along with Eleanor, as fragmentary flashbacks and random encounters break the surface of her numbness. Benson also inverts gender expectations by making Conor talkative and Eleanor sullenly quiet. Conor believes if he can find the right combination of words, their marriage can be righted, while Eleanor knows that they’re already poles apart.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, a two-hour version that weaved together their divergent narratives, was released last month. For those awaiting this three-hour take (essentially Benson’s director’s cut), there is a crucial decision: Will it be Her/Him or Him/Her? Choosing the order changes the initial perception of the characters. Is Eleanor a taciturn woman who attempts suicide (Her) or the wife who confidently states that she needs to disappear for a while? Is Conor an estranged husband eager for reconciliation (Him) or a selfish interloper? Some scenes are the same in both films, but play differently in context. Then there are the key encounters that illustrate the couple’s fundamental divide, with Conor viewing events in great detail while Eleanor sees a few bold brushstrokes.
This cinematic diptych focuses on piecing together their shattered romance, but what happens during the separation is equally important. After their parenthood is cut short, both Eleanor and Conor move in with boomer parents (the Rigbys named their daughter after the Beatles song, and Conor’s culinary-rock-star father name-drops the Stones). Thrown back into the position of being children, but with all the painful knowledge of adulthood, they establish new ways of communicating. Conor’s pointed discussions with his pensive, flippant pa (Ciarán Hinds) in Him would have been a one-off in another film, but Benson allows them room to breathe. Him also benefits greatly from McAvoy’s ability to balance bleak circumstances with black humor.
Immersed in sadness, Chastain has few moments of levity in Her. Refusing to engage with a therapist, especially anyone associated with her psychology-professor father (William Hurt), Eleanor offers curt, dismissive replies to inquiries. Her French mother (Isabelle Huppert), a former musician, and her sharp-tongued new mentor (Viola Davis) aren’t comforting maternal figures. They both question the value of motherhood and carefully maintain an emotional distance. Eleanor meets their regret and rancor with her own ambivalence.
Splitting The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby into Her and Him is more than a gimmick. Eleanor and Conor are seen not only in relation to each other but as individuals who approach tragedy in radically different ways. This is especially important for the stubborn and conflicted Eleanor, who conforms to no standard image of a mourning mother. Chastain embodies her with a remarkable combination of stillness and ferocity as the centerpiece of a superb cast. In this unhurried full version, Benson allows grief to transform his characters, with few guarantees and plenty of regrets.