The Phantom Limbs of ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’

The medical name for the phenomenon is “phantom limb.” It holds that when a limb is missing or amputated, a person still feels as though it’s attached — and feels pain and other sensations connected to said limb, in other parts of the body. None of this has anything to do with what’s onscreen in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, but it has everything to do with what’s going on outside the frame. You see, Them is a combination of two other, standalone films, and as lovely as it would be to ignore that fact, the knowledge that the picture was originally something else hangs over it like an albatross. It’s a very good film, but throughout it, its phantom limbs tingle, hinting that it was something much more special before its Frankenstein job.

Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy star as Eleanor and Conor. She is a grad student, he owns a small, unsuccessful restaurant. They were a couple once, and (by the evidence of the brief but effective flashbacks) a good one. And then something happened, which is kept hidden until a good ways in to the film (and which I’ll leave for you to discover), that broke them apart. She goes to the suburbs, to regroup with her parents and sister (William Hurt, Isabelle Hupert, and Jess Weixler, all flawless). He drinks and broods and gets in fights, and tries to puzzle out why it’s all gone to shit.

Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy in "The Disapperance of Eleanor Rigby"

A poster for Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman hangs in Eleanor’s bedroom, and it doesn’t feel accidental; like that film, Eleanor Rigby is a modest, lived-in movie, filled with small moments of quiet truth. There’s a lengthy memory scene of our protagonists in earlier, happier times, relaxing in the afterglow of hungry, passionate car sex. A later scene of a near-wordless car ride serves as a counterpoint, beautifully capturing those terrible, desperate moments when you know a relationship is over, and don’t know how to feel about it. Chastain and Viola Davis have several scenes of verbal sparring that deliver on the juicy promise of them sharing the screen in something better than The Help. The prickly tension between Conor and his rock-star restaurateur father (the great Ciarán Hinds) pays off handsomely in a scene of real honesty and candor, as the son finally tells the father whom he’s terrified of disappointing, “I’m 33 years old and my life is a fuckin’ boat wreck,” and the old man tops him. William Hurt has a remarkable monologue late in the film, delivered with an offhand simplicity that totally disarms such a “writerly” touch. And there are a pair of shots in the apartment the couple shared — one of a bedroom being emptied, one intertwining the past and present — which are absolutely wrecking.

For those who walk into the theater cold — lucky souls that they are — these moments and many others will most likely add up to a satisfying and very fine picture. But here’s what I knew going in: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was originally conceived, shot, edited, and screened (at last year’s Toronto Film Festival) as two films, one subtitled Him and the other Her, each telling the story from one protagonist’s perspective. It’s a good gimmick, a trick that’s been done before but not successfully, and early reviews indicate that writer/director Ned Benson pulled it off.

And then the Weinstein Company bought it.

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in "The Disapperance of Eleanor Rigby"

Look, it’s very easy, and probably unfair, to perpetually paint Harvey Weinstein a bogeyman — and in stories about how those two films became this one film (subtitled Them), Benson has made quite clear that the reworking was his idea, not Mr. Weinstein’s (“Harvey never set foot in the room,” Benson told Deadline). That may very well be true! It may also be a first-time director carefully preserving his relationship with his distributor, who, to put it mildly, has something of a reputation to contend with. This is the man known throughout indie circles as “Harvey Scissorhands” — who demanded 20 minutes in cuts to Snowpiercer (and reportedly gave it a smaller, VOD-targeted release when the filmmaker wouldn’t comply); who sliced and diced The Grandmaster into Wong-Kar-Wai-For-Dummies tatters; whose reputation for egregious post-production nip-and-tucks goes back to his company’s first big hit, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, a haphazard hodgepodge of what was, initially, two different films. (Sounds kinda familiar, no?)

Even if that’s not the case, even if Eleanor Rigby’s recutting was entirely its director’s idea, with no pressure from the Weinsteins, it does seem safe to say that TWC saw the moneymaking value of such a ploy: Them is out this week, while the Him/Her combination will get a smaller art-house release next month. In other words, see this one now, and hey, if you like it, come back and fork over some more cash for the theatrical equivalent of a Blu-ray director’s cut.

None of this is meant to imply that Them is not a movie worth seeing — just that it is yet another case, in this high-information movie-going age, of what we know about the making and promotion of a movie infringing on the standalone experience of the film itself. Early in the picture, upon her arrival at her old home, Chastain’s Eleanor takes down a picture from the familial photo gallery on the staircase wall; the camera regards the hole on the wall periodically throughout the movie, only explaining what occupied that empty space when it is refilled at the end. And in a weird way, that’s what it feels like they’re doing with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is out today.