Ned Benson’s somber relationship drama, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, is not a mystery despite the title, though it’s plenty puzzling. The version reviewed here, Them, is an edited combination of what was originally two separate films, Him and Her. It flips back and forth between our two players Conor (James McAvoy, donning an unconvincing American accent) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain, all pale grief and feigned smiles) as their marriage disintegrates, but it never plays its gimmick out with the obvious one scene played twice from different points of view gag. That may have actually made the film a bit more interesting, though it would’ve also added to the film’s already burdensome two-hour-plus runtime.
After surviving a leap from a bridge, Eleanor moves back in with her parents (William Hurt as the stereotypical soft-spoken bearded professor and Isabelle Huppert as a drunk French former violinist) and single-mom sister (a likable Jess Weixler, who it would’ve been nice to learn more about), while taking a class on the theory of identity taught by a bitter but wise woman (Viola Davis). Meanwhile, Conor is moping around his failing restaurant, lashing out at customers and his best friend/chef (Bill Hader) and moves back in with his recently thrice divorced and overly philosophical father (Ciaran Hinds, always good). Slowly but surely we find out the real reason behind the break-up and their decent into the spiral of grief (hint: it’s not just about losing each other), and it is indeed tragic and hangs a pall over the whole family, not just our protagonists.
The film is filled with talking it out and philosophical ponderings espoused by really good performers. In lesser acting hands, the film would’ve been an outright mess. The characters speak dialogue sincerely as if read from discarded Felicity-era WB melodramas and self-help books.
Claire Denis is one of the most renowned and prolific female directors in world cinema, but her films are known by few outside of urbane critics and religious patrons of the art houses. Her surprisingly heartfelt slice-of-life piece about multiethnic Parisians, 35 Shots of Rum, probably would’ve made my top ten list last year had I seen it in time and is a film that deserved a wider audience. Her latest, the frustratingly non-humanist White Material, isn’t about to win over any new fans or stir up any kind of decent business. But it will have plenty of people talking.
In an unnamed African country, civil war has broken out. Isabelle Huppert plays Marie, a French woman who runs a coffee plantation and refuses to leave amidst the anarchy and danger, even after French soldiers beg her and her family to evacuate and all of her laborers abandon their work to flee. Determined to bring the latest crop in, she hires a weary group of day laborers while her family falls apart and a notorious rebel leader, wounded and hunted, finds refuge in her home.
Giving the film no historical context is a bit frustrating, but Denis, who has her own tenuous ties to the continent, seems to indicate this could be “Anywhere Africa” and what she displays — the ailing after effects of colonialism, the brutality of civil wars, the inhumanity of using children as soldiers, and the rampant anarchy of a land full of “hot air” is a hellish portrait of her former home. Continue reading →