The release of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Ned Benson) has been a mess. Like Nymphomaniac earlier this year, the version the director wanted to release in theaters has been mutilated and reshaped for the purpose of accessibility. The studio scalpel was, ironically, far more mild with the ultra-graphic-sex-fueled opus Nymphomaniac, which was merely divided into two parts with some scenes (and graphic instances of sex) lost along the way. Eleanor Rigby, in contrast, emerged from the surgeon’s table almost unrecognizable. Originally premiering at the Toronto Film Festival with two distinct versions, Her and Him, it showed the dramatic breakdown of a wistful relationship through two focused narratives. One, obviously, focused on the guy, and the other on her. But for the film’s wide release, the Weinstein company combined the two: Them. Them is overworked and stilted, stuttering between scenes that were never meant to connect. I wish all of the blame could be pointed at Harvey Weinstein on making a single cut, but Benson’s new blooded moviemaking is the worst blunder of all.
Them begins with a moment of idyllic love. Connor (James McAvoy), handsome and spirited, asks Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) if she would still love him even if he couldn’t cover the check of their romantic dinner. She laughs softly and details the steps of a backwards heist. They need to flee the restaurant without getting caught. The sequence explodes with laughter and whimsy, with Eleanor ending up legs parted on top of Connor making deep eye contact. This, the film suggests, is happiness. Ned Benson wrote his movie’s opening to make a starry eyed proclamation of what love is. They put love for each other before status and even before society. It is only for, if you’ll excuse the pun, themselves.
Why, then, are the gorgeous leads estranged and unhinged? As the heavy-handed title warns, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby positions itself as a mystery. Instead of the Ark of the Covenant or the dying word “Rosebud,” the MacGuffin is the question marked cause of Connor and Eleanor’s breakup. Details are frustratingly slow, leaving only indirect clues to piece things together. It takes the longest of all to hear the exact moment Eleanor fled, disappearing from Connor’s life with unforgiving blunt force. Eleanor Rigby is largely unconcerned with answering why they’re like this as much as relishing in their misery. It’s two hours of heartbreak porn inflicting audiences with watching the gamut of negative emotion. Infrequent flashbacks of happy times, or “someplace good,” as Eleanor recollects them, are welcomed interruptions in the gloom. Intermixed are grand life affirming quotes of what life is all about, but it seems even Benson knew he laid it on too thick since he apologizes for them all. After Connor’s dad (played with amusing grumpiness by Ciarán Hinds) makes a majestic summary of what love is and how to live life, Connor quickly says it was a “little too Hallmark.” If you’re going to main groan-worthy quotes, don’t act like the person with an awkward thing to say at a party.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s masterpiece, Three Colors: Blue, was on my mind while watching Eleanor Rigby. We see in both films beautiful people wandering the busy streets of a big city — Paris in Blue and New York City in Eleanor Rigby ––where the more people that are around them the more lonely they seem to feel. But unlike Blue, Benson’s script lacks poetic agency. The proliferation of sadness is annoyingly literal; the many shades of depression and loneliness are shown before us as they would really happen. This might sound novel, and often the film captures the pang of tragedy with a studied wisdom, but mostly we just experience angsty conversations and a lot of walking. So much walking. Scenes often lack a subtext, since, frankly, there isn’t one to be had. The lack of unifying drive to these scenes, other than the collective grief of the people in them, makes for boring movie watching. They may be clinically accurate, but they’re cinematically uninteresting. Attempts to dramatize their existence through peripheral characters, namely William Hurt’s dignified performance as Eleanor’s academic father, help the problem somewhat, but they’re a tourniquet that can’t stop the bleeding. It’s frankly a film that’s hard to feel for, which sounds insane considering its subject.
Great films have a rhythm that makes each moment freely flow into the next, like a cohesive whole broken down into little moments, each of which are necessary to see for the picture to become clear. Eleanor Rigby’s Her and Him may very well have, but in the distilled version, Them, there is no rhythm. One scene doesn’t flow into the next, and scenes are not causally linked. The feelings of one scene can’t be juxtaposed with those of the next since they never were meant to from the start. For example, scene one was meant to be followed by scene three, and scene 2 was meant to be followed by scene four, and so on. Scenes smash into each other with head-scratching chaos like every scene is the kid who walked into the wrong class on the first day of school. It’s possible that unifying the two films might have produced an interesting feeling despite never being conceived that way, but that couldn’t be less of the case. Rigby has the same cadence of a busy-brained speaker who halfway through one sentence cuts themselves off to start a new one. People who talk like that convolute what they’re trying to say, and so does the film.
The saving grace of the film, of course, is its wonderful performances. This too may be a problem with this version of Eleanor Rigby, but the characters have odd mixtures of characteristics that never fit together believably. Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy are the paramedic’s paddles that try and bring a cold film back to life, and they’re largely successful. They give nuanced, heartbreaking studies of a couple experiencing deep and horrific tragedy, dramatizing the different ways men and women cope with grief. What the film may try to say about men and women (much of which is obscure) is best said through them, and it’s a shame to think that had Benson been better prepared for such a difficult subject, this could have been an awards contender.