The romantic comedy genre has been gang raped by small-minded fantasy pushers. There was a time, though, when the best of them could entertain both men and women, drive them into deeper thought about the complexities of human relationships, explore both people equally without the need for a fantasy ending to reinforce the outdated notion that happy endings are the only worthy ones.
Some of the best romance films haven’t even needed the label of “romantic comedy” at all. Annie Hall springs to mind. The Apartment. It Happened One Night. A Philadelphia Story. Such is the case now with the sublime The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. There are supposedly three parts to this story — the he, she and they parts. I believe what was screened here at Cannes was the “they” part of the story. Knowing nothing really about it, not having read any reviews, I came to the story fresh and what I found was something films have been sorely lacking for a few years now: women.
Written and directed by the very talented Ned Benson, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them digs deeply into the film’s two main characters, Conner (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain). But it does one more than just that. It also enlivens the supporting characters, like Isabelle Huppert as Eleanor’s French, wine-drinking mother and William Hurt as her father. Also wonderfully written and drawn is Eleanor’s sister played by Jess Wexler. Viola Davis is disarming as a professor and mentor to Eleanor -— wait, what’s that? A female character who actually mentors the very smart Chastain? Yes, it passes the Bechtel test with flying colors a million times over. Women have actual conversations with each other. About something other than a man.
Probably in the film’s earlier incarnations — Him and Her we find out how their marriage fell apart with the death of their child. This movie is about how each of them deals with their grief and how their love for each other is something they have to reach for. It doesn’t come automatically and it isn’t solved by one man running to the airport to stop his love from leaving the country, wherein she wraps her arms around him and they live happily ever after. This is a much harder and more intricate portrait of long-term love.
Chastain shows yet another dimension from her seemingly endless array of character traits. There isn’t a more versatile actress around, except for Meryl Streep. Here, Chastain plays a grieving mother and a woman trying to figure out who she is. Her delicate volleys with Viola Davis are a joy to watch. Vulnerable, somber, occasionally tough, always on the verge of either sinking or swimming, her Elanor Rigby is perhaps Chastain’s most fully realized performance to date. It’s a good thing that this film, which is a streamlined blending of the two other films, leans more heavily on the Chastain storyline than it does the McAvoy one, though neither is given the short shrift.
Benson has not dropped a single ball here and clearly knows these characters very well. He gives them room to breathe, to pause before saying things, to give unpredictable answers. One wonders how other films would fare if the directors, or their writers, told each character’s story that well. When you do that you simply have to fill in the blanks and not take shortcuts past someone in trying to get to the point. However he got there and whatever remains of the two separate films, this one together works beautifully.
I suspect that the powers that be — that is, the united front of young to middle-aged white male critics and bloggers who dominate the scene will feel too feminine adjusting their sensibilities about movies about love and/or ones that feature women talking. You see, it doesn’t quite have the cool factor going for it, though it almost does, given that it’s a male writer/director. Were it a female writer/director? The movie would fare far worse. But the auteur theory could protect this film a little bit from the indifference, the low-toned misogyny that has all but killed the female in American film.
It’s partly the critics, yes. It’s partly the studios. It’s partly the audiences. Women fulfill specific roles in Geek Cinema — hotties in costumes usually. They fulfill specific roles in artsy indie fare, too — alcoholic mothers, manic pixie dreamgirls, the occasional combination of all three — but they generally exist to help the male character get from point A to be point B. Very rarely are the women there because they are the story. It happens sometimes, as with Short Term 12 last year. Zero Dark Thirty is a pretty good example as well. But for the most part, this is a man’s game now. Women barely matter.
So hats off to this director for giving a damn, and hats off to the Weinstein Co. for distributing this film. If it is successful perhaps then studios and audiences and yes, critics and bloggers, might find a way to open doors and let more stories about women, featuring women, soaring passed the Bechtel test, flourish.
When asked about how he is able to write such good female characters, Game of Thrones’ George R.R. Martin said that he’s always thought of women as people. That is why Game of Thrones is such a thrilling thing to watch, and it is why The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is, as of this date in 2014, groundbreaking cinema. It’s just a shift of perspective is all.