In the 1966 song “Eleanor Rigby,” The Beatles asked, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Nearly half a century later, writer/director Ned Benson uses the song as inspiration in his remarkable first feature film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them.
Benson made three films about the relationship between Eleanor Rigby (whose Baby Boomer parents had named her in honor of the song) and Conor Ludlow. One film was from her point of view, a second from his (they were shown together at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, billed as “a work in progress”). The third film combines their perspectives, thus “Them” — which is now one of the most compelling, most perfect films of the year.
New York City lovers Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy) skip out of a fancy restaurant without paying. They howl with glee and run to a nearby park, where they fall into a passionate embrace. “There’s only one heart in this body,” Conor pleads. “Have mercy on me.” Eleanor answers with a kiss so adoring that it sends shivers down the screen. Ah, young love …
Next scene: Jessica hurls herself over a bridge rail into a river. Everyone in the audience gasps — what the hell! She gets rescued (thank God, you say, not yet used to how this movie switches gears). But Eleanor isn’t happy. She would rather be dead. She refuses to see Conor and then “disappears” without a word.
Eleanor finds refuge at her expansive childhood home, where younger sister Katy (Jess Weixler) is as baffled by her behavior as her parents are. The tragedy that looms over Eleanor is never discussed. Her psychiatrist father Dr. Julian Rigby (William Hurt) has little marital advice. “Everyone starts out thinking this will be forever,” he says. “Then things happen.”
Mom (Isabella Huppert), who’s still not reconciled to giving up her life in Paris to marry Julian and move to the U.S., isn’t much help either. “I never wanted to be a mother,” she says, as if admitting such a thing could save her from being drawn into her daughter’s nightmare.
“Please stop reminding me that something is wrong,” Eleanor complains. She cuts her hair and takes a class at a local college, where the tough-love professor (Viola Davis) and she become friendly. Since the professor is the only person in her life who doesn’t know about the unmentioned tragedy, Eleanor can be herself and not feel entrapped by pity.
Conor, however, is completely adrift, abandoned by Eleanor, longing for her, and trying to keep his small restaurant afloat in a tough market. His chef, Stuart (Bill Hader in a nicely serious role), hasn’t a clue what to say or do. Too upset to stay in the apartment he shared with his wife, Conor slinks to his father’s apartment. Spencer Ludlow (Ciarán Hinds), a successful and oft-married restaurateur, has no patience for Conor’s pain. “You shouldn’t be interested in regretting things,” is all he can say.
For a while, Eleanor seems to be too privileged for our compassion. She doesn’t have to worry about a job, or a safe place to stay. If she doesn’t want to see a memento, or her image in a mirror, she just turns it over to face the wall. You would be excused if you wanted to shake Eleanor and yell at her to “get over it.”
But Benson, a consummate storyteller, whose script is as lyrical as a poem and as taut as a thriller, never stays with Eleanor long enough to make you dislike her. When you think you know her, he cuts away, so you’re always wondering what is going to happen next.
What did happen to Eleanor and Conor? How did they reach the point where she says to him, “It’s like we’re a million miles away in the same room.” Why can’t these two people just find themselves in another movie and get back together?
No one, not even we who are watching this couple’s story as if we were roosting on their shoulders, can really know what goes on in another relationship. Tragedy, alas, can’t be unremembered. And love, the film says, once lost, can’t be revived. When The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is over, our only consolation is the realization that Ned Benson is merely 37 years old, so we can count on seeing more astonishing films from him. I, for one, can’t wait.