For his first film, writer-director Ned Benson aimed higher than most: Determined to tell the same story from two points of view, he created separate but entwined features. With its "Him" and "Her" components, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" gives new meaning to the term "double feature."
And, as the story of a young couple's separation after a devastating event, "Rigby" more than lends itself to such a twinned perspective.
Moviegoers were first subjected to a misconceived mashup of the two films, the abridged combo version "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them." A month after the release of that CliffsNotes iteration, conceived after "Him" and "Her" were screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and the project picked up by a distributor, audiences can experience what the filmmaker initially intended with his storytelling experiment.
The lead characters, played by the ultra-watchable Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, aren't necessarily more likable, but they are more fully realized, the performances cohesive and affecting. "Him" and "Her" are hardly groundbreaking cinema, but they are more rewarding than "Them."
Theaters will vary the order of the two films, which screen in succession. In either configuration, the both-sides-now romantic drama is a lesson in watching — particularly in the variations, major and minor, that Benson finds between two tellings of an incident or conversation.
Chastain plays Eleanor Rigby (her parents were Beatles fans), and McAvoy is Conor Ludlow, New York marrieds whose different responses to the death of an infant make them incompatible — in Eleanor's view, anyway. She withdraws into her pain, to the point of an attempted suicide, while he pushes on with the business of life. He's the more outward-focused of the two, and while her story reaches more insistently for the poetry of angst, Conor's plain-spokenness — especially with his father (a compelling Ciarán Hinds) — and his direct engagement with the people around him make his tale the more complete and satisfying narrative.
Conor struggles to keep his East Village restaurant afloat, supported and goaded by his chef, Stuart, and bartender Alexis, roles incisively etched by Bill Hader and Nina Arianda. The "disappearance" of the title is Conor's experience; Eleanor has left him and cut off communication. On a tip from Stuart, he stalks her through the streets of Lower Manhattan, going so far as to follow her into the Cooper Union lecture hall where she's auditing a class. There, he passes her a note.
It's a striking gesture, one that Benson emphasizes and parses. In one version, we see Conor's single-mindedness; in the other, Eleanor's panic. A later attempt at reconciliation provides the film's strongest use of the double perspective: Together in a rain-swept car, their conversation feels far more intimate, hopeful and flirtatious in Conor's experience — or is that delusion?
Whether he's following her on a city sidewalk or showing up at the suburban home of her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt), Conor is chasing a phantom. Eleanor, whose half of the story will be largely familiar to anyone who saw "Them," is no longer emotionally available to him, and she remains inscrutable to us.
But in the deeper, slower rhythms of "Her," that opacity is, at least, understandably rooted in heartache. In their different ways, Conor and Eleanor suppress their sorrow. What's left unsaid registers poignantly in Eleanor's friendship with her professor (a refreshingly brusque Viola Davis), who knows nothing about the son Eleanor lost.
It's too bad that Benson takes the same approach, withholding far longer than necessary the information that the couple are grieving over a child and revealing no details about what happened. It's a choice that calls attention to itself, much like the passages of dialogue that set off "people don't talk like this" alarms — with Huppert's and Hurt's characters sounding that bell frequently.
If Eleanor's story is as exasperatingly solipsistic as it is tender, her relationship with her single-mom sister (warmly played by Jess Weixler) gives her far more dimension than we get from her broody interactions with Conor or the self-consciously romantic flashbacks to happier times.
That self-consciousness notwithstanding, the loveliness of the movie's imagery, from Chastain's chiseled features to a summer night's fireflies, can be stirring. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt's supple work is steeped in emotion, while the score by Son Lux accentuates a lush dreaminess.
Benson's nods to European cinema — in the casting of Huppert and in the conspicuous placement of framed posters for Claude Lelouch's 1966 "A Man and a Woman" and Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 "Masculine Feminine" — serve as reminders of what's lacking in this drama. Though the director's intent is not to offer social commentary, it's jarring to think of Godard's "children of Marx and Coca-Cola" in this context of privilege. A dine-and-dash episode from the early days of Eleanor and Conor's romance conveys not New Wave daring but brattiness.
It's in the ways that Benson pinpoints the subjective differences in particular moments that his experiment succeeds. Sometimes that's simply a matter of which partner says "I love you."
'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her'
MPAA rating: R for language, brief drug use
Running time: 3 hours, 16 minutes