"The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" – Three movies that are one and brilliant

Every once in a while, you come across something that smacks of genius. Maybe it’s in the idea. Maybe it’s in the execution. Maybe it just is. Today, I give you Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

Now, I say it’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” but it isn’t. It’s actually ” The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her,” ” The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him,” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them.”

Yup, it’s three films, and until you see them all, I’m not sure you can understand just how great the whole thing is. This is the same tale, told from the woman’s point of view, the man’s point of view, and a joint point of view. Maybe something like “Rashomon” if it were three separate movies.

The movie(s) star Jessica Chastain as Eleanor Rigby and James McAvoy as Conor Ludlow, the her and the him in question. A married couple, they are struggling with the loss of their child which has created a rift in their marriage. On the face of it then, it sounds like a perhaps interesting (maybe not entirely new) story.

Watching “Them” first, I was impressed by the acting, intrigued by the tale, and liked the back and forth nature of how it unfolded. It was, I thought, a good movie, but perhaps not brilliant.

Next, I embarked on “Him,” and while the earlier things that impressed me remained, I became intrigued by both the new scenes and the ones which played out in slightly different fashion. “Him,” in short, added a new dimension to the tale and I began to consider the whole thing as great.

Finally, I watched “Her,” and was blown away. The performances and story remain strong, there is still new material to be seen, and scenes which play out in a different fashion than either of the other two movies. That was when the notion of it being genius truly hit me.

After I finished watching all three movies (on different days), I instantly wanted to go back and watch the first and second ones again.* Not only that, but I also wanted to watch them all at the same time, to see if there was anything new to be gleaned that way. Each time I saw the story, and from each angle I saw it, I was more invested and more curious about what I may have missed from an earlier viewing.

* I say “first” and “second” movies not because that is the prescribed way to watch them, but rather because that is the way I watched them. The new Blu-ray release is a two-disc affair with “Them” existing on the main disc and “Him” and “Her” offered as bonus features on a second disc. Although, to refer to them as bonus features and not an essential part of the movie is ludicrous.

Any movie that I can watch in a slightly different form three times and instantly want to watch three more has something special about it. The question becomes what is it here?

Above, I compared the movie to “Rashomon,” due to the multiple viewpoints being displayed, but I’m not sure that the analogy really works. There are differences in the way scenes play out (the description of the child being a notable one I can offer which will not spoil any portion of the film), but I don’t think that Benson is offering those differences up as a meditation on the truth. For me, they’re all true. It may have happened differently each time, but they’re still all true. Which, fine, is a logical impossibility, but watch all three and tell me if you feel differently.

Then, there’s the fact that each time I watched one and noted the differences in the way a scene is included or excluded or uses alternate dialogue, I contemplated how the movie would have hit me differently if I had watched that version first. I wanted to have the ability to go back and see it all with fresh eyes, not because I feel as though I watched the wrong version first, just because it would be a fascinating exercise.

That is, I think, where people might disagree with me. The story here touched me, as did the performances, and that’s why I could go and keep watching it and marvel at the exercise. I imagine that if the story doesn’t hit you in the same way, you won’t want to watch it again (and again and again and again and…) and in the end it will feel like some sort of film school assignment.

To me, that really is the genius of filmmaking in general – slight tweaks tell a different a story; including or excluding a scene causes the audience to react in a completely different fashion; substituting one description of a face for another changes the way you see a relationship. Good moviemaking is knowing what tweaks to make so as to elicit the desired response from the people in the theater.

“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” then, lays bare some of the mechanics of moviemaking, but does so without marginalizing the tale. Is it an exercise in form and function? Absolutely, but it’s one that makes the audience work their mind and which never goes for a cheap shot when there’s something meaningful it could say instead.

It is genius, and I love it.

The Blu-ray is available as of tomorrow, February 3rd.

photo credit: The Weinstein Company/Atsushi Nishijima

Categories: review

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4 replies

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