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Toronto Day 10: Double vision(s)

Posted by Ty Burr  September 14, 2013 02:32 PM

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Rigby.jpgThe problem with attending a film festival -- I mean really attending, going to five or six movies a day for the better part of a week -- is that you're running from vision to vision, each roughly an hour and a half long and each often straining to make its case. Rarely do you get to steep at length in one filmmaker's world (unless the programmers have included a Tarkovsky retrospective, which Toronto 2013 hasn't.) (Although there is that one-shot Ozu revival...)

So I settled into the 11 a.m. screening of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her" the other day with a sense of conflicted relief, 190 minutes of a singular aesthetic spreading before me. At best, I'd be in for a transformative experience. At worst, I'd have three-plus hours of looking at Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy.

Ned Benson's debut film tells the story of the dissolution of a marriage, first from her side and then from his. Or it could be the other way around: TIFF screened the films -- for they really are two separate films -- in both configurations at different times, and when it/they eventually get a theatrical release (Weinstein is distributing; no date set as of yet), you may have to see them in separate sittings. I'd argue against that -- are you listening, Harvey? -- even if the exhibitors do kick, because "Him" and "Her" gain strength by being placed next to each other. Do I think "Her" is the better movie because I saw it first? I'm not sure. But I am glad I saw the pair in tandem, if only because the experience calls attention to the way two people in a relationship -- especially one on the skids -- remember the details of who said what to whom differently. Among other things, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" -- I do wish they'd do something about that title, but it's too late now -- testifies to the ways in which we re-order reality in our heads to shore up our own senses of self.

Actually, the movie(s) call into question the notion of "self" itself, which is fairly ballsy for a project with A-list stars. "Her" begins with Eleanor (Chastain) throwing herself off the Manhattan Bridge in the wake of a family tragedy. Surviving the attempt, she retreats to her parents' Connecticut home, lops off her hair, and tries to reinvent herself, having no clear idea who that self might be. We catch glimpses of Conor (McAvoy), the husband from whom she has disappeared, as he searches for her and tries to hold his struggling downtown restaurant together, but mostly "Her" focuses on Eleanor as she moves between the present and the past, trying to knit them into something that might point toward the future. ("Him," of course, comes at the same events from Conor's point of view.)

What could be a gimmick largely works, and largely due to Chastain's spectral presence and openness to the emotions flooding through her character. (Her name -- oy, the name -- is explained away as being a result of her father's Beatles fixation, and when another character is introduced to Eleanor and says "That must be tough," you think, well, it didn't have to be.) There's a scene early on when her family is treating her with that ginger, nervous kindness with which you talk to someone who has just thrown themselves off the Manhattan Bridge, and Eleanor smiles and does her best to act "normal." Then the others leave the room and we glimpse the haunted skull beneath Chastain's porcelain skin.

I'm making "Disappearance" sound like a downer when it's often quite funny -- Benson is very good at getting across the ways that people who love each other can make each other laugh, in exasperation and otherwise -- and it's less about the main characters than about the web of family and friends around them. Indeed, that turns out to be the film(s)' message, expressed not too obviously in a college lecture overheard in both "Him" and "Her": That the Self we think of as immutable and anchored within is dependent upon the people with whom we surround ourselves. That identity -- whatever the hell that is -- is not individualistic but relational.

Theoretically, then, this story could be told from the vantage points of everyone in it: William Hurt as Eleanor's father, a college professor with a big heart and a propensity for speechifying, or Isabelle Huppert as her mother, wineglass forever in hand. (My ex-colleague Wesley Morris, who was sitting next to me at the screening, leaned over and whispered, "Of course that's the daughter those two would have.") Jess Wexler as Eleanor's younger single-mom sister, or Ciaran Hinds as Conor's father, a dour superstar restaurateur in the middle of his own late-life crisis. Bill Hader, dropping the SNL schtick as Conor's chef and best friend, or Viola Davis as the lecturer, a lifelong cynic sympathetically drawn to Eleanor's distress.

Occasionally we get a glimpse of those other movies. Toward the end of "Her," Hurt's character has a heartbreaking monologue he has never shared with anyone before, about nearly losing, then finding, the two-year-old Eleanor in the ocean surf. He remembers it as both the worst and best moment of his entire life, and as he tells the story we peer through the window of that life and see how dependent it is on the people in it. "Do I seem like a different person to you?" is a line of dialogue we hear more than once in "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" -- maybe the title is perfect after all -- and it's always asked in a mixture of insecurity and prayer.

There are flaws: The very last scene in both films -- it's the same but slightly altered -- strikes me as less ambiguous than muddled, and if Benson is going for closure (or, heaven forbid, a conventional happy ending), I'm not sure that's what's best for either the characters or the audience. And while "Him" was the first of the two films to be conceived and written -- Chastain apparently urged Benson to give more thought to her character and he went overboard -- "Her" feels like the stronger, more dramatic work. That may be because Eleanor is engaged in the immolation and renewal of self (again: whatever that is), while Conor spends most of his story resisting same. Or maybe I must like watching Chastain more than McAvoy; so sue me. I do know that I'm still thinking about "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" after two days and 10 other movies, and that can't be a coincidence.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

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Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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