There are lots of lonely people, but no Beatles music in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” a curious and mostly absorbing investigation of the bust-up of a marriage as seen through the eyes of both respective parties. This feature directing debut for Columbia U. grad Ned Benson (from a script that made the coveted Black List) is actually two feature-length films shown back-to-back — subtitled “Him” and “Her,” respectively — which is like a hitherto unknown rock band debuting with a double album. But “Eleanor Rigby” has more than just ambition on its side, including stellar lead performances by Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, backed up by an eclectic supporting cast that runs the gamut from Bill Hader to Isabelle Huppert (chain-smoking and guzzling red wine by the liter). There are highs and lows here, and in their current form both halves could benefit from some judicious trimming, yet something about “Eleanor Rigby” gets under your skin and refuses to leave. Acquired by the Weinstein Co. following its Toronto premiere, the pic faces any number of theatrical booking and marketing challenges, but should travel widely on the fest circuit and may prove ideal viewing for the VOD era, where it can be leisurely digested in one, two or even three sittings.
Despite having been introduced in Toronto by a hyperbolic fest staffer as an “unprecedented cinematic experience,” “Eleanor Rigby” calls to mind many prior multi-volume projects, including Krzystof Kieslowki’s “Three Colors” trilogy and the two-part 1988 film of Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” which similarly followed interconnected groups of characters from different vantage points across multiple films. But “Eleanor Rigby’s” most direct antecedent may be British director Waris Hussein’s 1973 telepic “Divorce His, Divorce Hers,” which employed the same structural device to depict the separation of a long-married couple played, in a bit of art-imitates-life casting, by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. (There, the two films premiered over successive nights as an “ABC Movie of the Week.”) In a sop to gender equality, Benson has specified that the “Eleanor Rigby” pics can be seen in any order, leading Toronto to flip the presentation order from one screening to the next.
At the screening reviewed, “Her” went first, and it certainly provides the more dramatic kickoff of the two, as a despondent Eleanor (Chastain) walks along a New York City bridge and hurls herself over the railing, plunging into the icy water below. We soon learn — somewhat quicker than in “Him” — that she is traumatized by the recent death of her infant son (perhaps the most overused tragic catalyst in movies today), an event that has driven a wedge between Eleanor and her bar-owner husband, Conor (McAvoy).
Conor, for his part, remains unseen for much of “Her,” as Eleanor lies low, repairing to the Connecticut home of her parents, an NYU psych professor (an excellent William Hurt) and a French violinist (Huppert) who did indeed name their daughter after the song. Yes, “Eleanor Rigby” is the kind of movie where people have rich parents with big Bridgeport houses who say things like, “Tragedy is a foreign country — we don’t know how to talk to the natives,” and none of that is meant as a parody of life inside the bourgeois WASP bubble. Meanwhile, for much of the audience, the real foreign country may be this rarefied world in which Eleanor — whose “disappearance” is strictly metaphorical — nurses her fragile inner self back to life, contemplates a move to Paris to finish her anthropology dissertation, and audits a Cooper Union “identity theory” class (taught by professor Viola Davis). What better place, after all, to “find” oneself?
But even at its most purplish and highfalutin (mostly in the “Her” section), “Eleanor Rigby” always aims for something sincere, and when Benson pulls back a bit — and stops trying to show us how much Freud he’s read and how many Bergman films he’s seen — the movie becomes vastly more engaging. In one of the handful of sequences that appears in both films, Conor manages to track his wife down to a Cooper lecture hall, where she promptly gives chase and he follows — only to end up mowed down by a taxi. (Just go with it.) The scene that follows, as the estranged spouses sit on a Lower Manhattan curb waiting for the EMTs to arrive, plays as a carefully measured exchange between two people who have clearly loved each other, drifted apart, and want to see if they might still have a future together. “Before I met you, I had no idea who I was,” he says to her in a later scene, suggesting that Eleanor isn’t the only one grappling with identity issues.
Both “Rigby” pics pivot on the different ways people grieve — some, like Eleanor, effectively pressing the “reset” button on their lives; others, like Conor, effectively continuing on with theirs. On another level, Benson aims for a generational portrait, of a certain strain of privileged thirtysomethings crashing into the realization that life isn’t going to be as easy for them as it was — or at least, as they think it was — for their parents. That latter theme expands in “Him,” which divides its time between Conor’s efforts to reconnect with the elusive Eleanor and the day-to-day realities of his failing bar business.
Where Eleanor turns to family in her time of need, Conor turns to his work family, including his best friend, chef Stuart (Hader, showing real dramatic chops), and a flirtatious barmaid (Nina Arianda) who’s only too happy to give Conor what Eleanor won’t. But the most affecting scenes in “Him” take place between McAvoy and Ciaran Hinds, superbly cast as Conor’s restaurateur dad, a success at business but a failure at relationships who tries to pass on fatherly advice he himself hasn’t been wise enough to follow.
It’s a measure of Benson’s sure, skillful hand with actors that all the relationships in the movie — husband and wife, parent and child — feel lived-in and true, even when the dialogue strains too hard for the meaningful and poetic. (In general, Benson seems more comfortable putting words in the mouths of the male characters of “Him” than the predominately female ones of “Her.”) Especially impressive, given the relatively little screen time they share, Chastain and McAvoy manage to convey a full sense of their shared, frayed relationship.
Chastain, who owns maybe the most intense, haunted gaze in movies today, uses those same piercing blue eyes that dogged Osama bin Laden across years and oceans in “Zero Dark Thirty” to suggest a woman here fixated on a point in the rapidly receding past — her life as a mother. McAvoy, sporting a flawless American accent, is at his most appealing as the husband who’s had the rug pulled out from under him, ostensibly the more put-together of the two but clambering just as frantically for solid ground.
Benson keeps repetitions between the two pics to a minimum, and when he does repeat a scene, uses it to give off a different resonance than before, bracketed by new information we’ve gleaned about the characters. Though generally of a piece stylistically, each pic hews slightly to the personality at its center, with “Her” unfolding in more elliptical, dreamlike fashion, punctuated by flashbacks to happier times, while “Him” plays more straightforwardly. (Even there, Benson manages to squeeze in a lovely, magical-realist moment in which Conor appears to encounter the doppelgangers of himself and Eleanor in the first bloom of passion.)
Widescreen Gotham location lensing by Chris Blauvelt (“The Bling Ring”) heads a solid tech package, with the original score by post-rock/hip-hop whiz Son Lux (nee Ryan Lott) striking the right ambient mood. In Toronto, running times broke down as follows: 100 minutes for “Her,” 89 minutes for “Him,” plus two minutes of incomplete end credits.