Netflix Review: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”

It takes a lot for me to be surprised by the way a movie is made.

I’m not talking about jump-scares or even the horror genre; I’m talking about the process of filmmaking and how even with a budget differences in the millions, whether you’re on the set of the third Avengers movie or the latest normcore flick from the Duplass brothers, the general process is remarkably similar: People with cameras film actors doing things and saying things based on a screenplay (or at the very least general guidelines in the case of normcore). In what we call post-production, the director works with editors to cut together the film. The Final Cut is what gets processed into the theatrical release and then slapped onto DVDs and BluRays. And that is that.

You might have extended editions and/or deleted scenes, but the movie is the movie. Except when it’s not.

I know you’ve heard of Boyhood, which gave us such a novel way to produce a film, lingering over the course of twelve years.

But what happens when you film more than enough and then publish three separate cuts of the same story told from differing perspectives?

You get the emotional tornado that is “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY

I caught a trailer way back when of a sad-seeming movie involving new Xavier and adult “muerrvv” from “Interstellar.” He was sloppy and love drunk. She was the sad one. And judging from what I once thought was a clear-cut title, I assumed she disappeared and he tried to find her. Like kidnapping or something.

I was at once totally right and completely wrong.

Ned Benson makes his writing and directorial debut with “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” and today you can view three different versions, all on Netflix.

It’s a personal story of a young-ish couple, detailing their relationship after it fell apart from an unspecified tragedy that befalls them (it gets specified at some point, but I won’t spoil that for you). The story itself, as read in summary form, isn’t anything out of the ordinary, but there are three separate cuts of the film: “Them” (119 min), “Her” (100 min), and “Him” (89 min). I reckon you can read between these lines, but the three versions split time between both characters, focus on her, and focus on him respectively. In some sense, “Them” is the definitive and more traditional viewing experience. The other two — mostly because these two people are super different — is like watching unrelated movies.

Conor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby are a young married couple living in New York City. After they split up, Conor continues to work in his failing bar/restaurant while Eleanor moves back in with her parents and goes back to college. They still love one another, but there’s a massive rift they can’t seem to bridge after a tragic loss shakes up their relationship.

So how did this madness come about?

As the story goes, Hollywood big wig Harvey Weinstein saw “Him” and “Her” at the Toronto Film Festival. Initially, it was an artistic venture co-produced by Jessica Chastain where they wanted to really highlight the differing perspectives within a relationship.

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“Him”

Conor’s story is one of sad and self-righteous frustration. His widowed father is one of the wealthiest restaurant managers in the city. In true frustrated man-boy fashion, Conor lingers in the purgatory of refusing to turn into his father while inevitably slipping into his shoes nonetheless. He has a peculiar set of daddy issues and a stubborn ego that refuses to let him become anything other than “his own man.”

So he runs a crummy bar that doesn’t make any money when he could be working with his father. After he and Eleanor’s falling out, he becomes overburdened by insecurity. He doesn’t want to let go of Eleanor, but only by doing so can he move forward.

He’s portrayed by James McAvoy, who strikes a nice dark and gritty tone with the character. He’s got a touch of rage, but only because he feels inept. When he’s succeeding at life and love, he can be quite peachy.

The overall execution of this version proceeds along in a straightforward, gendered sort of way. In the editing room, Benson comments on gendered perspectives. When a man and a woman relate to one another, what do they each remember? What do they focus on? Where does the blame go and why?

You might disagree, but Benson seems to think that men are simple and view things in a linear fashion, trying to trace the cause and effect to understand what’s happened rather than let things be dictated by emotion.

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“Her”

In “Her,” we learn that Eleanor’s name comes from the Beatles song because her parents were hippies with a sense of humor and a penchant for torturing their children. Much of the story grapples with Eleanor’s crippling depression. In the wake of tragedy, she can’t really come to grips with reality, and after a drastic mental break she spends her time trapped in happy memories while reeling in the miserable present.

The big thing that becomes highlighted between the two is the differing perspectives we are granted. In “Him” Conor plays a tortured man longing to reunite with his wife. In “Her,” he is basically a husband turned obsessive stalker. It’s all about relative perception. Eleanor Rigby isn’t really a person in “Him”; she is Conor’s perception of her and vice versa. Because of what’s happened, they are both consumed by their own feelings.

Eleanor spends time with her family, and her nephew, which is particularly trying. Her mother is a condescending French drunk and her father is a soft-spoken professor. They both urge her to be more active and regain control of her life, but it’s something that always proves difficult for the emotional crippled. Conor becomes something of a solution to her problems and a source of even more. She’s in denial about who he is and what he is supposed to mean to her; by running away from that she’s only retreating from her problems. Radical acceptance of their mutual circumstances makes for her only way forward, something she has to both accept and truly let go.

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“Them”

There’s not much more than can be said about the film(s) at this point. “Them” is the third edit of the film made and strives towards a balance of the other two. You get happy memories, like the early one pictured just above. But you also get the grueling present where our two protagonists are reeling in misery.

The name of this whole experience, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” has more to do about her personhood being stripped from her due to depression. She literally leaves Conor’s life for a time. She’s gone and he can’t do anything to stop it until he accidentally finds out where she is. He fights and fights to reconnect until he eventually realizes that for them both, the only way forward is to accept things, let go, and press on.

No matter which of these three viewing experiences you embark upon, you’re not going to find it easy to watch. I think that’s why, despite a solid showing from McAvoy and another astounding performance from the positively enchanting Chastain, the blurry dreariness of the emotional weight is a bit too much, even for Bill Hader’s chef sidekick character to counteract. The story is a “good” one, communicating a number of poignant ideas about relationships and how the opposite sides to every story can be so radically different. When do you learn to let go? How do you know if you should give up at all?

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