Cannes: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby Them review

That syntactical nightmare of a headline is an unfortunate side effect of a late choice to edit two films into one. For the record, we’ve reproduced the title exactly as it appeared on screen, with no hyphen or colon to be found.

Writer-director Ned Benson first premiered a pair of work-in-progress cuts at TIFF last year. These were entitled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and told the story of a relationship from the separate points of view of its two participants. The Weinstein Company then picked up these films and, under their influence, Benson returned to the editing room to blend them into one.

The resulting film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby Them, premiered in Cannes and will supposedly reach US cinemas later this year, alongside limited releases for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her. An interesting experiment perhaps, but also one liable to lead to a great deal of confusion.

I’ve not seen the Him and Her versions of this story, but on the basis of what I saw in Them, I am only keen to explore further out of idle curiosity. This was the most middle-of-the-road picture I saw in Cannes, a tepid attempt to enliven a well-worn story through a somewhat unusual structure.

The film opens with the couple at the centre of the story, Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) and Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy), sharing a meal together before running out on the bill. They scarper to a park where they tumble onto the ground and indulge in some rosy, lovesick dialogue. Now cut immediately to a different time and place, with Eleanor alone, resting her bike against the railings of a bridge, climbing up and then jumping off, presumably in an effort to commit suicide.

All of this is shot in exactly the manner we have come to expect from 21st century American indies, with lots of shallow focus, low light and a token bit of handheld camera wobble. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this aesthetic, but it seems like minimal thought has been given to the specifics here and the look is just leading us to a feeling of general familiarity.

The film then slowly, perhaps tortuously so, fills in the gaps between these opening scenes. Much of this is structured in a similar way to the opening, with temporal and spatial leaps, the narrative moving to focus on one character and then the other. The very rare occasions in which we see them together are clearly supposed to feel significant.

This attempt to mix things up is somewhat diverting at first, as we’re kept busy putting all of the pieces together, but it quickly becomes tiresome. Crucially, there’s little gained from the disrupted structure. It simply seems to be window dressing for something rather uninteresting.

The best qualities of Them are to be found in the performances. Chastain does a great deal with her oversimplified role, bringing an intensity of emotion to dialogue and scenarios that would seem inert on the page. Isabelle Huppert and Ciaran Hinds, as Eleanor’s mother and Conor’s father, are great scene stealers, both of them delivering blackly comic performances with a great sense of timing. Unfortunately, McAvoy, William Hurt, who plays Eleanor’s dad, and Viola Davis as Eleanor’s ‘straight-talking’ professor, all get trapped in mannered awkwardness.

Davis’ professor character grates very early on but doesn’t go away. She’s the kind of transparently manufactured character who is there to add some ‘edge’ or ‘sass,’ to soapbox a different viewpoint and affect important change in a central character. She’s a thinly drawn device who talks in cliches.

While Them has many reasons to superficially seem interesting, from its unusual structure to its rather bizarre release, a collection of very interesting actors to an indie-friendly style, all of this is all just a thin layer of paint applied over a dull and lifeless doodle, the sort of scribble we have already seen countless times before.

The various versions of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby will be shuffled into US cinemas this September and October.