Initially shown as a two-part double feature, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him focuses on Conor (James McAvoy), an East Village barkeep piecing together what remains of his life after his wife, Eleanor, walks out on him after her attempted suicide. Likewise, Eleanor Rigby: Her follows Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) after her titular disappearance as she buries herself in college classes and suburban comforts in an attempt to distance herself from her life with Conor. As they cross narrative paths in fleeting moments, Conor and Eleanor are forced to painfully look back on the relationship they had and inevitably confront the tragedy that drove them apart. While the films’ order of exhibition alternated throughout their festival run, the total experience was an intimate yet heartbreakingly epic one, with an emotional power as overwhelming as its three-hour runtime.
For its theatrical release, however, Benson worked with distributor The Weinstein Company to combine both Him and Her into a truncated film entitled Them. Them uses both perspectives to grant the viewer an omniscient view of the story… albeit, as noted by some critics, at the cost of the film’s original conceit. In an unusual move, Weinstein showcases both cuts of the film on a two-disc Blu-ray, released earlier this February. The resulting dilemma is, expectedly, “which version do I watch?” However, my recent marathon of all three films has led me to believe that not only is the answer more complicated than I once thought–but that it may be the wrong question to ask altogether.
While Him and Her’s split narrative may seem gimmicky at first glance, it is how writer-director Ned Benson uses this conceit to his advantage that makes The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby such a memorable experience. The look and feel of each film differs according to its protagonists; Him takes on a static, cold look to mirror Conor’s increasing loneliness while Her’s looser, more handheld camerawork and bright, warm tones externalizes Eleanor’s frenzied yet driven attitude towards her new life. “His movie is all about moving forward — don’t stop, because otherwise I’m going to feel something — and when she comes into his life, he has to feel something,” Benson explains in an interview with The Moveable Feast. In regards to Her, “the character is much more interior in dealing with more emotional issues…I [shot] her film handheld except when he comes into her movie, when I go more static, and study him, because he is the baseline to her life. He’s the constant or the certainty in her life and once she’s left that, she’s completely uncertain in terms of her identity and trying to re-scope who she is.” There are also moments where Him and Her narratively dovetail, but much like the film’s production design, the content of these scenes diverge depending on which character is the focus. Conor’s perspective tends to paint him more as a heart-on-his-sleeve romantic hero, with Eleanor as strangely withholding and emotionless; Eleanor’s perspective, on the other hand, reveals a woman more close-guarded with her emotions, trying to figure out the best way to express herself when faced with Conor’s more bullish, headstrong nature.
The contrasting aesthetic and narrative qualities of Him and Her not only establishes a distinct identity for each film, but also deepens how isolated the characters — and their respective films — feel from each other. Because the world in Eleanor Rigby changes depending on who the film focuses on, the opposing protagonist isn’t the same character featured in the opposite film; to Conor, Eleanor isn’t Eleanor, and vice versa. Rather, like everything else making up his or her world, their love interest is merely how they perceive them to be. This results in a frustrating yet beautiful love story in which these two characters both long for each other’s understanding and compassion, yet lack the ability to see the world in any other way but their own. This limitation extends to the film’s audience, who is granted the ability to see both sides of the story, but in their mute spectator role cannot grant the same ability to the characters they empathize with.
It’s this remarkable effect of pathos that makes creating a cut like Them such a problem to begin with. In assembling Them, Benson didn’t face just the problem of which scenes to include, but a staggering ripple effect afterwards. Selecting certain scenes meant that other scenes featuring the same wardrobe or production design had to be included to ensure continuity, at times prizing one character’s perspective over another. Color timing and signifiers meant to distinguish between characters’ viewpoints become tangible rather than aesthetic decisions. In creating a standalone film synthesized from two differing perspectives, individual perception is forced to become objective truth.
As a result, much of Them feels tonally uneven, its characters slight. Eleanor’s quiet, introspective journey feels sluggish compared to Conor’s more active and headstrong quest to win back his lost love; at the same time, Eleanor feels more mature and developed than Conor’s boyish lonely-heart as she struggles to reconcile her drive to escape her tragic past with the consequences of the necessary actions she’s taken. When compared to the rich, detailed world of Him and Her, it’s hard not to feel cheated at times by Them — it’s the same story, to be sure, but you cannot shake the feeling of something greater existing beyond the boundaries of its frame.
However, I cannot doubt that something magical happens in intertwining Conor and Eleanor’s journeys. They may occupy their own separate lives at times, but Them argues that this does not mean their worlds are mutually exclusive from one another. In watching these two lovers run from heartbreak only to snap back towards each other like karmic rubber bands, Benson reveals how much Conor and Eleanor’s lives work in tandem. Despite their feelings for their partners, Conor and Eleanor remain impenetrable ciphers to each other, dancing closer to reconciliation only to break away when painful memories come back to haunt them, or when earnest actions register as threats. They could make this work–something inside them refuses to deny it–but the only ones holding Eleanor and Conor back are themselves.
This problem isn’t limited to just them, either. In the film, Professor Friedman (Viola Davis) lectures about how we have derived a sense of uniqueness or identity from our individual perception of the world. This belief, however, creates a mental solitude that inhibits our attempts to understand those around us; comprehending and accepting someone’s irrational behavior requires admitting the fallibility of our initial perceptions. As much as the characters in Rigby want to solve each other’s problems, they must also reckon with the limitations of their own understanding over the course of the film. Conor and his father Spencer (Ciaran Hinds) can only talk around their suffering with a bemused stoicism, or compare the relative weight of each other’s marital drama as if it were a contest in un-masculinity. Julian (William Hurt) attempts to “outsource” necessary discussions with Eleanor to a psychiatrist colleague because, despite being her father, he doesn’t feel qualified to help her; “Tragedy is a foreign country,” Julian mutters, explaining to himself as much as he is to Eleanor. “We don’t know how to talk to the natives.” Where Him and Her are about how confining individual perspectives can be, Them explores how humanity as a whole seems to have lost the ability to communicate as a result of this self-imposed isolation.
What unites all three films is the hope that developing meaningful relationships may help us overcome our perceptual limitations. Even more, that we seem to be hard-wired to seek out these relationships even as we cling to comforting yet flawed beliefs. Conor desperately seeks out family and friends’ explanations for Eleanor’s behavior in order to win her back; this forces Conor to reckon with his own refusal to deal with their tragic past, and he recognizes his headstrong, confident persona as a mask for his own emotional immaturity. Likewise, Eleanor’s drive to move beyond her relationship with Conor stumbles when the important people in her life refuse to follow in her footsteps. Akin to Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue, Eleanor discovers that she cannot escape the memories of her traumatic past, for they are her sole motive for forging a different, better future. As a result, she inevitably finds herself confronting the very man she’s trying to forget. While both characters begin with a primarily individualistic worldview, they find they cannot move forward or grow without the thoughts and ideas of others. Despite Conor and Eleanor remaining in opposite emotional states at the conclusions of their respective films, all three films share the idea that there is still room for them to grow and find peace–as well as the hope that their paths will soon cross again.
Through retiming Him and Her’s color palate, Benson extends this theme to Them’s overall color scheme. “I keep those disparate color palettes in the beginning, and as the film went on, and as they sort of slowly re-found each other, I try and synthesize those color palettes a little bit…[so that] the last scene of the movie is a blend of it all,” Benson explained in an interview with Coming Soon on Them’s editing process. Rigby’s separate films effectively dramatize the protagonists’ point of views; Them takes this one step further and suggests that the more Conor and Eleanor open up themselves to change, their inner and outer worlds reach a desired (and very much necessary) equilibrium.
It’s easy to write off Them as a mere combination of two films that are strong on their own, since much of what makes Him and Her so effective — the differing versions of scenes, the attention to detail in each film’s contrasting production design and camerawork — are all pretty much done away with when placed in the framework of a conventional narrative. I mean, the very idea of smashing these two films together seems so frustratingly logical that it’s almost comical. It speaks to a long-standing belief in an omniscient form of storytelling where morality and consequence are as clear-cut as the characters experiencing them. That events only happened the way they happened, not as we remembered them. That the world as we see it is, in fact, the world that is. Him and Her certainly recognize that this isn’t the case, so anything less than that must, as a result, be an inherently inferior work. I certainly wanted to believe this was the case, and I initially did–it was the reason why I refused to see Them during its Austin run last September, and it was why I was hesitant to even watch it for this article.
But I can’t defend this idea anymore. Pitting Conor and Eleanor’s perspectives against each other creates such a natural visual and narrative dialogue that cannot be found by solely watching Him and Her. Intercutting the two stories may create a more linear, straightforward telling of the story more akin to traditional narrative film, but Them still feels like two clashing perspectives eventually reaching a middle ground rather than a wholly omniscient view of its subjects. Granted, the film does suffer by having to make the impossible choice between which versions of scenes it chooses to include, but that’s exactly why Them should be considered part of the experience of The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby rather than an alternative to Him and Her. While the two films may support the idea that Conor and Eleanor live in different worlds, Them shows how selfish and confining this idea can be–all while using the same footage as its progenitors.
At the same time, the experience of watching Them made me further appreciate the amount of care and detail put into the visual and storytelling qualities that differentiate Him and Her from each other. There’s an element of discovery and beauty in the experience of watching each version of the film, and is truly the best expression of what all three cuts are trying to achieve. It’s not enough to settle for one cut; to do so would defeat the purpose. While it may feel like you’re watching the same material over and over (and yes, you are), I can assure you that it’s never in the same light.
It’s uncomfortable to lack a sense of moral surety or objectivism. We would like to neatly compartmentalize the world and believe that things are as we see them. We hate being wrong. Or, at the very least, not being correct on the first go around. But a triad like Eleanor Rigby suggests that not only is this mode of thought the most painful and confining aspect of our existence, it is the main thing holding us back from forming meaningful relationships with others. It is through experiencing the world through as many eyes as possible that makes it possible to transcend and question our initial beliefs or expectations; hopefully, through that, we can find our way towards a better future. We may succeed, we may fail. At the very least, we wouldn’t be alone in trying.