Streaming Showcase: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – A Two (or Three) Film Experience
How can two people be in the same room but millions of miles away, experiencing and responding to the same event in two completely separate ways? This is the question explored in director Ned Benson’s debut feature film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a single story told from two perspectives, in a two-film experience unlike any I have encountered. It is a unique cinematic work, which many likely missed during its limited theatrical release roughly one year ago. Luckily for us, all three versions of the film are now available for streaming on Netflix, which in many ways allows for the ideal viewing experience for this distinctive film, as users are able to view the different versions at their own pace, in their own way. Of course, I will also give my own recommendation for what I believe to be the best way to view these films, but know that there is truly no “right” or “wrong” way to watch them.
First off, why are there different versions of the same film? The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby tells the story of a husband and wife, Connor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), who have recently experienced a tragedy in their lives. They each react to that tragedy in their own way, and we are given the chance to experience it with both of them, individually. Hence, the movie was filmed as two separate movies: Him, which follows Connor, and Her, which follows Eleanor. They’re not really “different versions of the same film” then, at all. Each movie is a complete, distinct story unto itself, fully exploring the main character and giving you a view of the world through his or her eyes, and an understanding of why they make the choices they make; in another way, however, each film is only half a movie – half the story. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, each character is so important to the other one’s story – to the other one’s life – that it would be unsatisfying to watch only one of the films, even though both Connor and Eleanor are wholly developed, intricate characters, capable of sustaining a film on their own.
Him and Her are also two very separate films because the characters embark on separate journeys and do not actually share that many scenes. Thus, there is little overlap and very little repetition in terms of the events you witness and the story beats you experience in each film; additionally, each film has its own pacing and its own unique cast of supporting characters. Her boasts phenomenal supporting performances from William Hurt as Eleanor’s father and Viola Davis as a college professor whom she befriends; Him features equally impressive work from Ciaran Hinds as Connor’s father and Bill Hader as his best friend. After watching both films, I felt in no way that I had seen the same thing twice.
However, when you do get to see the same thing twice – meaning, the scenes that are in both films – it isn’t the same thing. These scenes are different in subtle ways. Often, the dialogue is slightly different, or the blocking, or both. Even more impressively, McAvoy and Chastain play the scene differently depending on which film it is, on whether they are themselves in their own film, or someone else’s perception of them in that person’s film. This is all intentional, and it is one of the things I loved most about The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Ultimately, the outcome in these scenes is the same. But it’s the little things that are different. Who said what, and how did they say it? It is as if we are truly seeing these scenes play out from a different perspective each time. Or, more accurately, we are viewing the imperfections of memory. What is on someone’s mind at the time, or how someone is feeling, or what happened earlier that day often influences how people remember the event later. So, these “repeated” scenes are often the most interesting, as they skillfully convey the idea that each film represents a unique perspective.
I watched The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby with my wife, and if you are in a serious relationship with someone, I would encourage you to watch it with that person. After watching Her, I felt like I understood my wife a little better, and she said the same thing about me after watching Him. That is how successful these films are at presenting their protagonists’ points of view. And since it is done in the context of a relationship, it lends itself to this kind of reflection. These films are all about perspective, and, because of that, they are ultimately about empathy. If you only watched Him, Eleanor may seem a certain way to you. You, like Connor, would have a decent understanding of her and why she is struggling so much, but many of her actions would seem enigmatic. But after watching Her, she is no longer a mystery; you understand her because you have essentially been inside her head. The same is true of Eleanor’s understanding of Connor. He seemed to be in less of Her than she was of Him, so Connor appears even more aloof in many ways, and I believe this is intentional, because – speaking generally – men are less expressive emotionally than women. But when you watch Him, you see that Connor is struggling just as much as Eleanor, he just deals with it in a different way.
And this is the point – people grieve differently. And sometimes, they have to do it separately, even if they are in a relationship. Because, even though the two people who make up a relationship are wholly and intimately connected together, they are also still separate, unique individuals, with a universe of complexity and distinctiveness in their core selves that only they can fully understand. Yet, their relationship to and with one another is part – perhaps the most important part – of that core. That is what The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is: a representation of a relationship. Two individuals – two stand alone films – that together, make a whole and complete story. This is why I have been annoyed to find that some describe this film as the depiction of “the dissolution of a relationship.” It is not giving anything away to say that that is an inaccurate way to describe this movie. It is about how you go on as a person after experiencing extraordinary tragedy, and how that process affects your relationship with your soul mate. Just because you can never get back to where you were, it doesn’t mean you can’t still end up “someplace good.” It will just be a different place.
This leaves one final question: why is there a third version of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby? Essentially, that third version – subtitled Them – is an edited-down combination of Him and Her into a more conventional single-film experience. This was likely done to make the film more appealing to general audiences and more marketable to movie theaters. Everything in Them is taken directly from either Him or Her; Eleanor’s scenes are taken from Her and Connor’s from Him, and the scenes that involve both characters are taken from one or the other, depending on the scene. This does make Them interesting in that the filmmakers had to choose whether those scenes involving both of them would be from “his” perspective or “hers.” But, since the film was intended to be a two-film experience and Them is more of an edited-for-convenience version, I don’t know how much to read into those choices. Thus, I suggest skipping Them if you want the intended – and, for my money, better – experience.
Them is, however, the version I watched first, and it by no means ruined the experience. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch the other two versions after I got a taste with Them. After watching Him and Her, though, I realized that those two films offered a far superior experience, and that the entire story resonated with me in a much deeper way than it had after simply watching Them. And since three films may be too intimidating for some, Them is the one I recommend you skip.
Between Him and Her, it probably doesn’t matter too much which one you watch first, but I would recommend starting with Him, for a few reasons. First, as I mentioned briefly above, Connor is not in much of Her. After watching Her (having already seen Him) I thought about what an enigma Connor would have been to me had I watched Her first. Now, as long as you watch Him afterward, it doesn’t matter too much. But I preferred to already have that background knowledge of Connor while watching Her, so I could focus on Eleanor’s story without wondering too much who this other person was. Conversely, Eleanor is in enough of Him that I got a pretty decent impression of who she was, and was thus better able to focus on Connor’s journey while watching that film; but, there was never any question that I was going to watch Her as well. Eleanor was always too compelling of a character – the more compelling of the two, if I were forced to choose.
The second reason I would start with Him is that its early moments feature scenes between Connor and Eleanor that are in neither Her nor Them, which provide further insight into Chastain’s character and help inform the overall story. Third, I think Him has the better opening scene, in that it introduces the audience to Connor and Eleanor’s relationship – indeed, it is the same scene they used as the opening of Them – whereas the opening scene of Her focuses exclusively on Eleanor. Finally, Her has a preferable, more conclusive ending, so finishing with that film provides a more satisfying overall experience.
Ultimately, the order in which you watch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is less important than the fact that you watch it. Whether you watch Him and then Her, or Her followed by Him, or if you decide to watch Them first, or last, or not at all (Who’s on first? What’s on second? Ed.), or if you watch them in one sitting or on separate days (my wife and I watched one film a day, over three days), you will be treating yourself to a memorable cinematic experience. The performances are outstanding – Chastain and McAvoy are both exceptional – the story is compelling, the soundtrack is fantastic and perfectly suited to the material, and the characters are two of the most interesting and relatable you will find in cinema today. And with all three films available for streaming on Netflix, you can experience this multi-film narrative in the way, and at the pace, that best suits you. Just make sure you watch it before it disappears from Netflix for good.