The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Ned Benson appears on the Croisette with bittersweet The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. With an exceptionally starry cast, this is part of a strange trilogy of films telling the same story from two different perspectives. What makes the trilogy strange is that it was originally conceived as two films, Him and Her, and was shown as a work in progress in Toronto as such. The film which played in Cannes is a recut combination of the two films, entitled Them.

We first meet Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) in a restaurant, from which they do a runner, and we see them happy, carefree and in love. Then we take a sudden leap into the future as Eleanor leaps into the Hudson. What brought this about? It soon transpires that they have lost a child. When she is discharged from hospital, Eleanor doesn’t head back to the city, but to her parents, who named their firstborn after the Beatles song because they met whilst waiting for a New York Beatles reunion that never took place. Mother Mary (Isabelle Hupert) is never seen without a glass of wine in her hand. It would appear that this ex-violinist is not so enamoured with her life in wealthy Westport, motherhood and suburbia not exactly having been in her life plan. And when Eleanor asks her dad Julien (William Hurt) how they keep their marriage together, he replies “endurance”.

This is a thread running through the film. When Eleanor enrols on a course at university, her professor accuses her of being part of the “generation of too many choices”, and when Conor finally gets around to having a heart-to-heart with his gruff and taciturn dad (the wonderful Ciaran Hinds), Conor lists all the shitty things that have happened in his life. When he finishes, his dad brilliantly retorts with his own, much longer list. Benson is happy to give all the wisdom to the older generation in this film, and also most of the best lines.

There are lots of things to like about this film. As we glimpse those halcyon days before the tragedy and watch the two protagonists striving to mature despite their pain, we feel a real tenderness for them. The story is hardly a new one. On her bedroom wall Eleanor has a poster of Claude Lelouch’s A Man and A Woman, another tale of two people overcoming bereavement. The characters are pretty text-book, too: Eleanor the rich campus brat with her intellectual family; Conor with his rock and roll restauranteur British dad who doesn’t want to accept any handouts when his own restaurant business flounders. But this does not detract from our enjoyment of the film nor from the emotions it stirs. It may not say anything new, but it is says it with style and with heart.