After debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall in two parts (labeled Him and Her) which told the story from the perspective of the two different main characters, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby came to Cannes Saturday night in a two hour combined version labeled “Them.” I can’t speak to Her or Him, but Them was an unusually terrific love story that rivals films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Her, though I don’t want to give the impression it’s quirky or fanciful like those films. Rather, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a mysterious, wrenching, but clear-eyed examination of love – not the usual bogus movie fairy tale, but the real deal complete with all the pain and sorrow mixed with hope and passion that comes along with that.
We’re quickly introduced to Eleanor and Conor (an irritatingly pretty Jessica Chastain and an equally irritatingly pretty James McAvoy… their children would take over the universe with soulful blue eyes and cheekbones alone) in the throes of new love in a grassy field amid the fireflies, but just as quickly the story jumps to Eleanor’s attempted suicide and estrangement from her husband. Through a series of flashbacks, we come to learn what happened to the couple to cause the split. These scenes run counterpoint to the present day story as Conor and Eleanor try to put their lives back together.
So many movie romances are frauds perpetrated by an unimaginative Hollywood and embraced by audiences who are stunted by basic wish fulfillment. If you can’t find happiness in your own life, at least you can find it at the movies for a couple of hours, right? Eleanor Rigby takes a different tack. Rather than hiding the pain of love that goes along with the joy (and indeed makes the latter so special), this film jumps right into the angst and the suffering. Seeing them suffer doesn’t make you despair for love, it fills you with the hope that somehow they’ll find a way to get back together. Most romantic leads are beautiful but charmless cyphers and it’s rare that I care whether they wind up together or not (and you always know they will). I found myself rooting for Conor and Eleanor early and often.
Fireflies are a central visual metaphor of the film, as if to suggest the fragility of love and the way it can suddenly flicker on or off. The film itself is delicate like that. It’s subtle and lyric without being obviously sentimental. The tears it evokes feel are earned and real and heartfelt. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is no simple escapism. It’s the real deal told by someone who has clearly loved and lost.