September 10, 2013 3:40pm PT by Scott Feinberg
Toronto: 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' Wows at Fest But Still Needs a Distributor (Analysis)
TORONTO -- Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Monday afternoon and screened again Tuesday afternoon, when I caught up with it. The three-hour film offers a unique moviegoing experience by showing the same story, about the decline of a relationship, from two different perspectives, each with their own half of the film: Him and Her, or, as they were ordered on Tuesday, Her and then Him. Him takes us into the mind and memory of the man (James McAvoy) and Her takes us into the mind and memory of the woman (Jessica Chastain). In short, it is a film which argues that there are two sides to every story, both of which deserve to be considered before formulating any conclusions.
The audience at the Winter Garden Theatre on Tuesday seemed to buy into the film's approach, remaining enraptured throughout the long haul and then offering a considerable ovation at the end. But the question now is whether any distributor will be willing to gamble that moviegoers will show up to see such a long and unconventional movie. (I have heard that several outfits have expressed serious interest, but, as of Tuesday evening, no deal has been completed.) If a distributor does bite, I cannot say with any degree of confidence that moviegoers will, too -- but I do believe that critics and awards voters will rally behind the two great performances as it center, as they should.
Certain facts of the film are beyond dispute: Seven years after they first met, Eleanor (Chastain) and Connor (McAvoy) are married but still reeling from a devastating tragedy that occurred six months earlier. Understandably, they are both devastated, but she is less able to move on with her life than he is, and he doesn't know how to help her. One day, she decides that she can take it no longer, breaks up with Connor and jumps off a bridge in a suicide attempt -- which she survives. After that, she moves back in with her parents, and he shortly thereafter moves back in with his father.
Henceforth, as much as they wish to leave the past behind them, it trails them always, in one way or another: he is haunted by her (no less than Jimmy Stewart by Kim Novak in Vertigo), and she is haunted by the child (unable to even look in a mirror any more because any image of herself reminds her of her child -- which probably explains why she chops off her hair, buries her face under heavy makeup, shades her eyes behind sunglasses and tries her best to simply, well, disappear).
But Eleanor and Connor's versions of events -- their justifications for their actions -- differ in subtle but significant ways that show how two people can grow apart: over who initiated romantic encounters; who first spurned whose profession of love; how certain developments in their relationship first came to light; etc.
Eleanor Rigby is not unlike the great film Blue Valentine (2010), in the sense that we see a relationship come together and fall apart within one sitting. But, whereas a man might be predisposed to relate to and sympathize with the man in that film, or a woman with the woman, it is much harder to fall back upon our own experiences and biases in this film because, regardless of the order in which you watch its two parts, you feel more understanding of and empathetic toward the character whose part you are watching than you do toward the other. As Atticus Finch famously says in To Kill a Mockingbird, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." This film offers you that chance.
What makes this long and often sad journey worth taking is the opportunity to see two of the world's finest young film talents at the top of their game.
McAvoy, a handsome guy who effortlessly radiates decency, has done understated but impressive work in a great many films over the last few years, including The Last King of Scotland (2006), Atonement (2007) and The Last Station (2009). I don't think it's a coincidence that at least one of his co-stars in each of the aforementioned pictures received an Oscar nomination; I do think that it's an injustice that he did not.
And then there's Chastain -- the star of The Help (2011), The Tree of Life (2011) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), all of which were released within the last two years -- whom I would submit, having carefully considered the matter, is the best actress of her generation. Moreover, thanks to her effervescent beauty, her hypnotic persona, and her inimitable little laugh, one never doubts that a man could become obsessed with her -- or haunted by her if she were to disappear.
The film also features fine supporting work by Chastain's hero Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Bill Hader and especially Viola Davis and Ciaran Hinds, some of whom could find some awards traction of their own if this film is ever given a fair hearing.