I know a couple who, like the couple in this film, seem to have a really good relationship. They talk regularly. They are genuinely glad to see each other. They share a lot of common history and have a lot of common interests. They met when they were very young, and as they have matured, their points of view have occasionally been divergent, but their level of acceptance for each other’s changes is pretty high. They care about each other a lot and cheer each other’s successes. But they just can’t live together. They’ve tried it, and it was toxic and volcanic. When they had to try to agree on things like resource allocation and personal schedules and lifestyle habits, the conflict level was high and their satisfaction was low. But now that they are divorced and live in separate domiciles, they claim that the relationship is better than it’s ever been. But it will never be as intimate as it once was. The “non-custodial” ex-husband sees the kids very regularly, sometimes every day, and because she knows how important her kids’ relationship is to their father, she rarely refuses him visitation (though she will sometimes simply not answer his call). Both have moved on and emotionally invested themselves in others who are sometimes puzzled about the persistence of their caring for each other. Maybe this is the type of relationship that’s much more typical of Gen X or even the millennials than the “happily ever after” goal of the Baby Boomers, an ideal often attempted and rarely achieved.
Conor (James McAvoy) owns a small, struggling restaurant in Manhattan where his best friend is the chef. Though his father lives nearby and owns and operates a very successful similar venture, they’re not close. Conor feels that his father abandoned his (now-deceased and therefore martyred) mother to marry a wealthy woman, who then died and left him with the pile of money that became his stake in his business. And maybe all that is true, but perhaps the real problem is that his father Spencer (Ciaran Hinds) is selfish and brooding and really doesn’t know how to give of himself in a real relationship; and truth be told, Conor is much more like him that he’d ever admit.
Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain), besides being named after the Beatles song, is blessed with great parents who are still together and very supportive of her and her sister Katy (Jess Weixler). Unfortunately, Katy is divorced and now living back with the parents along with her young son. The mom, Mary (Isabelle Huppert), a never-famous performance artist, is never without her glass of wine, even during the day. The dad, Julian (William Hurt) is a prominent professor who nonetheless admittedly has no clue about why their marriage has lasted and his daughters’ have not. Eleanor would rather not talk about it, except maybe to her professor (Viola Davis). (She started taking classes again because she literally didn’t know what else to do with herself.)
Director Ned Benson first shows us the perfect delight of our handsome couple in being together and we can’t help but root for them because of how much fun they’re having – not to mention how the camera loves both of them. But their breakup is so sudden and unexplained that part of the tension dynamic is the viewer wondering what the heck happened and only finding out much later. Still, despite our puzzlement, we find ourselves grieving over the loss of what might have been and how even what they had is so shattered as to be unrecoverable. Even though they still care for each other deeply. Even though they share a common emotional history that practically excludes intimacy with anyone else. It’s just too painful. And so we watch them become emotional shells. That isn’t very satisfying, either, but sometimes all we can do is say to ourselves, as the Beatles did in their unforgettable “Eleanor Rigby” song, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.”
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.