When speaking of the three movies about a woman named Eleanor Rigby and why she disappeared, it’s difficult to avoid the chestnut about how there are three sides to every story: yours, theirs and the truth.
So I won’t.
In the “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” three films tell the same story. The first movie to hit theaters was titled “Them,” which was actually a combination of the two films now being released: “Her,” which is about a romance and breakup told from the point of view of the woman,, and “Him,” which takes us through the same timeline from the man’s perspective.
That’s a lot of screen time devoted to a muted, sometimes melancholy character study about good-looking people often wallowing in misery, but no matter which way the viewpoint is facing, this is a beautifully scripted, well-photographed and sometimes achingly poignant effort, with a brilliant ensemble cast and a remarkable lead performance by Jessica Chastain, arguably the most photogenic and certainly one of the most talented actresses of her generation.
In “Her,” the focus is on Chastain’s Elle (her father’s surname is Rigby, and her parents met while hanging out in New York City, chasing down a rumor of a Beatles reunion concert), who experiences the worst loss imaginable, jumps off a bridge, survives and moves back home with her artsy, intellectual parents.
Isabelle Huppert is Elle’s French-born mother, who always has a glass of wine in her hand and is still lamenting her truncated career as a classical musician. William Hurt is her father, a professor and therapist who encourages Elle to return to school, maybe finish her dissertation. (Just when we’re ready to write dad off as a pretentious twit, he delivers a monologue about nearly losing Elle to the ocean when she was just two years old. It’s a reminder of Hurt’s world-class acting chops.)
Writer-director Ned Benson, who conceived this project some 10 years ago when he was involved with Chastain (they’ve since broken up), is smart enough to let his camera linger on her face, giving even the simplest scenes a touch of elegance. Elle is deeply troubled, mired in grief and sometimes casually dismissive of the feelings of everyone around her, including her estranged husband Conor (James McAvoy), an earnest restaurateur who still doesn’t quite understand why Elle left him.
Even though “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is about a couple, Chastain and McAvoy don’t have many scenes together in any version of the film. And when they ARE together, even the flashback scenes have a slightly different tone, whether it’s in the dialogue, the TONE of the dialogue or even the cinematographer’s palette. (“Him” and “Her” have two very distinctive visual styles.)
In “Him,” we see far less of Elle’s family and we spend a lot more time with Conor’s core group, which includes his father Spencer (Ciaran Hinds), a womanizing restaurant owner who left Conor’s mother years ago and is now alone after his most recent wife left HIM. Like Elle’s mother, Spencer’s father freely acknowledges he was never cut out for the whole parenting thing. Most of the father-son talks are Dad telling his kid to stop being such a sentimental sop, which is fairly insane, given the depth of Conor’s troubles over the last year.
We spend a little bit too much time in Conor’s failing restaurant pub, where his best friend Stuart (Bill Hader) is the cook and a bartender named Alexis has a crush on him. Elle’s inner circle (including her younger sister, who’s a single mother, and a wise and world-weary professor played by Viola Davis) is just more interesting and three-dimensional than Conor’s pop and the gang at the bar.
What makes “Him” so interesting is we’re now seeing a second take on scenes we already now. When Conor talks about their baby’s features in “Her,” he says the infant was “all you.” In “Him,” there’s a major difference in a key line of dialogue. Which is the truth? Is it somewhere in between?
“Her” ends a certain way, giving us reason to believe a certain something is going to happen. “Him” ends with the same scene, but yet it’s not the same scene, and I’ll just leave it at that.
Of course this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a story from multiple viewpoints. “Rashomon” is the most famous example. In the early 1970s, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in the two-part “Divorce Hers” and “Divorce Him.” The entire Netflix season of “Arrested Development” was all about telling the same story from multiple points of view. Even “All in the Family” had an episode where Archie, Mike and Edith had wildly different recollections of an incident when a repairman and his black apprentice came over to fix the refrigerator.
By the time I experienced certain scenes in “Him,” scenes I’d already seen in “Them” and “Her,” yes, there were times when the urge to fast-forward was undeniable (tough to do in a movie theater). But for the most part, thanks in great part to Benson’s rich screenplay and Chastain’s nomination-worthy work, I was immersed in this story no matter who was telling the tale.
The Weinstein Co. presents two films written and directed by Ned Benson. Combined running time: 195 minutes. Both rated R. Open Friday at AMC 600 N. Michigan.