In 1966 when the song “Eleanor Rigby” came out, the passing of a note in a college classroom was perhaps more commonplace. Fifty years later Connor (James McAvoy) does not even have the right materials to write the girl he has been eyeing in class a note. The man in front of Connor regards him with contempt and a scowl when he asks for paper and a pen. Fuck you, now you want me to pass this thing? As difficult of a task as this is, the man and two other classmates pass the note to the girl. After one look at Connor the girl runs out.
As the title suggests Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) keeps running, disappearing at certain moments and reappearing once the good memories begin to reemerge. The memory is sweet: Eleanor bites into a Redvine as Connor tears it from her mouth, Faux Fix “No Fate Awaits Me” pulsing on the radio as they dance in the moonlight. An honest person would say we probably only get four or five of these moments in our life and spend the rest trying to recreate them.
What sounds like another film about love lost is not. First time director Ned Benson creates a film where the plot comes to us in fragments of memory–running out of a restaurant when Connor can’t pay, Eleanor riding her bike to the Manhattan bridge, a happy couple snuggling in bed with their child. Like Chastain’s breakthrough role inThe Tree of Life, the fragmentation works on a groundbreaking, yet much more subtle level. The plot doesn’t carry this film (guy wants girl back after tragedy) but its construction does.
Before sending the film to Cannes, Benson debuted The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigbyat the Toronto Film Festival as Him and Her, two separate films which presented each perspective in its own distinctive package. According to Variety the independent character study worked better, but for the sake of wide audience appeal the general public get’s Them:
Only occasionally in each film did the two characters share the screen, which made it all the more impressive that one emerged from the double bill with a sense of the full arc of a complex relationship — a particular credit to Chastain and McAvoy, who both delivered some of the best work of their careers as the wounded lovers wondering if they might ever again make themselves whole. Benson’s recut understandably keeps those shared moments front and center, which has the effect of making things at once more conventional and more gripping, while cutting back on the secondary characters.
Reportedly The Weinstein Company purchased all three versions and Him and Her will have a limited release on October 10th. All things considered Them is still a groundbreaking experience and I am not giving away the plot, nor should you seek it out as the film is meant to be experienced through hints of memory, evolving as the film concludes. The characters experience the day to day as we do—walking to the subway, missing chance encounters, going home with that looser from the club, and taking college classes because nothing else makes sense.
This is best captured when Eleanor tries to recreate the Redvine moment, Connor grabs it from her hand instead and when an attempt to make love occurs, he unloads a bomb on Eleanor which leads to “let’s just drive back to the city.” The scene represents moments in time that don’t seem to count so we throw them away. Eleanor has moments of wanting her relationship with Connor back, but only if they are the lovely ones. Connor is more comfortable with grit, refusing to ask his restaurateur father (Ciarán Hinds) for help as his restaurant fails, clearing out their apartment by himself and chasing Eleanor after endless fuck you’s. Eleanor wants each experience to glow, be it in the moonlight or through a firefly her nephew gives her. When the spark dims Eleanor moves in with her parents, takes classes her father suggests and opts to disappear from the tri state area all together.
While the film has made several attempts to be unconventional, if I see one more person living in a beautiful New York apartment, I swear to fucking God! An escapade which includes writing a dissertation at a Parisian café makes its way into Them. Eleanor’s parents come strait out of a Woody Allen movie, with her wino mother (Isabelle Huppert) who was once a classically trained musician and an over educated father (William Hurt), “she was a colleague of mine at NYU,” the pretentiousness is all too familiar. Any second now Lena Dunham is going to come in and start taping on something four times or performing anal sex while reading “The Bell Jar.”
Conflicting moods of grief are hard to capture by a new director and in several scenes the cinematography and astonishing soundtrack does this for us. There are also some Hallmark moments, some good, some bad, but overall Them is worth it, while cinephile’s may prefer Him and Her separately, the masses are encouraged to read the Hallmark card before purchasing the novel. We can’t help but want Eleanor to wake the fuck up, stop going on journey towards isolation and get this man whom she desires because were all fucking starving here, all the lonely people that is.