Relationships on a Breakdown Mode

in 38th Toronto International Film Festival

by Namrata Joshi

It’s a film, rather films, in progress. The specifics of how this ingenious 190-minute, two-part format will eventually play out in theatres — together or separately, and in which order — are still being worked on. However, with its artistic ardor and aspiration, emotional weave and profundity Ned Benson’s debut feature film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her, makes for one of the most uncommon, affecting and poignant experiences at the movies. The kind of film you may have odd quibbles with but will find very hard to shake off.

At the core is a collapsing marriage, which is shown from the perspective of both the husband and the wife — “Him” and “Her”. Truth, after all, can never be absolute and unqualified, especially when it comes to the convoluted and unfathomable world of a man-woman relationship. The few crossover, repeated sequences in both films bring out the ambiguities entrenched in the situation even more effectively.

The film was shown in both sequences — “Him” followed by “Her” and “Her” followed by “Him” — at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. And, going by the heart-felt reactions to both, the shuffling of lineups adds rather than takes away from the viewing experience. Both films, and their orders, are unique, complete and impactful by themselves yet leave room for varying interpretations when flipped. Both are essentially about emotions in a constant loop, fickle yet oddly persistent.

The film doesn’t side with either of its protagonists. Nor does it get judgmental. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a cinema of immersive experience, one that takes the viewer along on the emotional journey of its characters. A boundless loss and consequent grief shatter the togetherness of Conner and Eleanor. Bit by bit. The shared sorrow, rather than bringing them closer, turns each of them incredibly lonely. The disappearance of Eleanor then is a metaphor for being driven so far apart that you almost turn silent, cease to matter and fade away for and from each other.

“His” is about a broken Conner seeking the help of his father and his best friend, and trying to focus on his crumbling restaurant business while trying to reconcile with the estranged Eleanor. “Her” is a journey of reinvention for the emotionally fragile Eleanor. With her loving sister, a wine-drinking French mom and a caring father by her side, she goes back to the world of academics, that she once abandoned for love, to find and seek out herself. Will the “identity theory” classes and Paris help her cope? Will Conner and Eleanor ever get back together again? For real, or only in their own personal imaginations? It’s a quiet film drenched in sadness, with a faint possibility of hope but no clear promise of a renewal.

While “Eleanor Rigby” shows a marriage in the throes of crisis, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past starts at a point of seeming reconciliation. Ahmad travels back to Paris from Tehran to finalise his divorce from his French wife Marie after four years of separation. He has supposedly moved on in life, and she is about to remarry. But the past still holds on to them and doesn’t quite let go. We soon find Ahmad getting involved with and drawn into the family he had left behind. He is still a father figure to the kids and continues to be a bickering couple with Marie, without quite actually being a couple. “I am a nobody in this story,” he says. And yet he is a pivotal player. Which gets further complicated because of the fact that the new man in Marie’s life is also living with his son in this chaotic house of complicated relationships. It’s a film rich in conversations but just as important are those thoughts which are left unsaid. The Past is about perceived guilts and imagined lies, about the assumptions, secrets and sufferings inherently programmed into marriages, families and relationships. Most of all it is about a strained and broken marriage from the past forced to go through crises all over again in an ostensibly harmonized present.

A collapsing relationship finds an extreme and excessive interpretation in Kim Ki Duk’s wordless film Moebius. A couple fighting over the man’s infidelity leads to unimaginable blood and gore with the son at the receiving end of the wife/mother’s wrath. His castration becomes a sign of her eventual victory in the battle against her husband. The gruelling film gets more audacious and repugnant. There’s a grotesquely comical play with a severed penis in the thick of traffic. The emasculation of a man was never so categorical and wildly funny on screen. Sadomasochism, rape, and incest abound. Yet there is also a weird poignancy in Kim Ki Duk’s portrayal of these automated perversities of life. The mirror to marriage and family was never so disturbing and offensive, yet thought-provoking.

Edited by Leslie James