The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him – Ned Benson from his POV. (SFF Film Review)
This film opens in Sydney this week.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival.
It seems that Ned Benson writes men better than he writes women, as this version of his two-parter love story told from the woman’s and the man’s perspective is tighter and contains a stronger narrative flow than the “Her” version of the same story. Still, the project is a successful one, with a clear distinction between the two protagonists contexts primarily coming to the fore in the way they handle the tragic loss that is at the centre of film. Where Eleanor in the first film, had to come to terms with the decisions she had made and the impact those had on her life, Connor is forced to examine how is life has fallen apart, and if his perception of himself as an innocent victim of everything is essentially accurate. It all turns out to be a fine tale indeed, with the two parts definitely forging a whole that I had not anticipated at the end of the film I happened to see first – Her. Benson, I wrote in the first review, is clever enough to listen to the talented women around him, so if the Her version isn’t quite as passionately written, it is appropriately written, and beautifully filmed. Benson has gone a step further and shrouded the Her version in a subjective introspection, while the Him version is very much an energetic clash with the world that sees him almost head butting into it. If this might be a reliance on stereotype, it is a superior one to many others he could have relied on, and doesn’t jar the story flow.
Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Connor (James McAvoy) are a married couple dealing with a difficulty that we will not discover until later in the film. Connor is busy, trying to keep his life together, while Eleanor is laying in bed, steeped in her misery. The film opens with Connor leaving work to check on her, promising to bring her food when he finds out she hasn’t been eating. He stops in on his father as he walks back to his restaurant who has been ringing, only to find Spencer (Ciarán Hinds) is wallowing of a misery of his own as his youthful wife just walked out on him. Spencer is a genteel, sophisticated yet gruff, remote man who loves his son, but has a lot of trouble connecting. When Connor returns to his apartment at the end of the day, with food, he finds Eleanor in the midst of a new tragedy.
After a few days, Eleanor announces she is leaving to try to sort herself out. Connor moves in with his father and the two set about healing some old tensions between them. Gradually, as Connor moves through his life, frantically trying to keep his restaurant open, frantically trying to find his wife and frantically trying not to cry, he is informed by most of the people around him that he is non-communicative, distant and difficult, the traits Eleanor accused him of, and the same traits he sees in his father. Gradually, over time, he starts to come to terms with his hand in the collapse of a life he felt was perfect.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him is, then quite a different film from Her, and not only because Connor’s story is different, but also because he has not performed the introspection and therefore lacks the self-awareness his wife exhibited in Her. She needs to find the courage to live, he needs to find the courage to look in the mirror and see what he has done to himself. By shrouding each persons personal character arc in the same story, two quite different films emerge, each essential and ultimately each reaching a depth that is rare for films. Additionally interesting is Benson’s use of the moments when the characters converge to slightly change the details, if not the spirit of each meeting, giving us the sense we are dealing with two very different perspectives and we can’t separate judgement from emotional response to the scene. This is achieved artfully in scenes like one where the couple begin to have sex in a car after a drive where they intend to discuss their problems. In the Her version, she climbs onto his lap, seducing him through his initial hesitation. In the Him version, he lowers her seat and moves to lay on top of her missionary style. Small differences in perception speak volumes and include with them the enormous gulf that must be traversed when two lovers reach out for each other.
Interestingly, I felt Her ended with an optimism I didn’t sense in Him, even though both films end with the same shot, beautifully executed, emotionally complex and seen from a distance, and it is this sort of nuance that makes the two film experiment work well. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is made well enough that a proper examination of point of view in narrative can be examined, not to mention the difference in film technique with two protagonists telling the same story. Not only was the film very interesting from these perspectives, but I found myself more fascinated (rather than less) as the film progressed, and I know that I could watch them both again. Given how hard it is to tell any story twice, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby can definitely be considered a great success.