Jessica Chastain had a question.
This was a few years ago, after a friend, the writer-director Ned Benson, asked if she'd like to be in a film he'd written. Chastain's star was on the rise: In short order, she would receive two Academy Award nominations, for the 1960s racial drama The Help (2011) and the hunting-bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
She told Benson that, yes, she was interested in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a drama about a man whose wife leaves him after a tragedy strikes the couple. But she wondered why the film had to focus just on the husband. "'Why does [her] character serve his story?'" Chastain recalled asking, during a chat this week. "'Why can't they each have a story?'" Chastain's prodding led Benson to come back to her with a whole other script, a parallel story told from the wife's perspective, and last summer both films went into production simultaneously in New York's East Village. While each film is unique, scenes involving the wife, Eleanor (Chastain), and her husband Conor (James McAvoy) appear in both movies, with sometimes subtle and sometimes sharp differences, depending on how the central characters would perceive them.
Put together, the films have become one of the most unlikely triumphs at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her, as it is now titled, is a two-part, 190-minute romance that blends the multiple-perspective approach of Rashomon with the fractured chronology of Memento, fused to an After Happily Ever After story that would fit snugly with this summer's Before Midnight on a marriage counsellor's list of required viewing.
On Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the distributor Harvey Weinstein saw the film, Hollywood trade papers reported he had picked it up.
If Benson is just making his feature debut now, at age 35, he is well known in Hollywood, where he has been a writer-for-hire since moving there from his hometown of New York in 2001. Over the past decade three of his scripts, including Disappearance, have landed on the Black List, an annual collection of the best unproduced screenplays.
And he is a filmmaker's filmmaker, without being showy or arrogant about it. Sharp-eyed audiences of Disappearance will pick up on his distinct approaches to the two films: the use of different colour palettes (influenced in part, he says, by Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red and Blue) and distinct visual rhythms. As a conversation about Disappearance veers into its European qualities, he cites the Dardenne Brothers, Eric Rohmer, and Olivier Assayas as inspiration, as well as Woody Allen's Manhattan cinematographer Gordon Willis.
With its experimental formal approach, Disappearance should certainly play well in Europe. But one of the thorny aspects of its distribution, at least in North America, may be how to screen it during its theatrical run: give audiences a choice to see one or the other, or force them to see both together?
Officially, it comprises two individual films that Benson and his producer say can stand as individual works. But the experience is immeasurably deeper if both are seen – and seen in quick succession. For only then does Benson's audacious goal float into view, and only then will audiences emerge from the darkened screening room in a Rorschach-test debate about what they've just seen.
"My intention wasn't to tell you the exact truth or the exact story," says Benson now, in the upstairs lounge of a boutique hotel penthouse. "It was to show you two parts of a relationship, and have that feel like an experience. But not to say, We know the answer. I wanted it to be about the endurance of love. I wanted it to be hopeful."
He adds with a smile: "I wanted to create a subjective experience about subjective experiences."
That subjectivity was baked into the acting. Chastain says she approached Eleanor as she were two entirely different characters: In Her, Eleanor has a muted, desperate longing, but she is also by turns warm, caustic, and playful. In Him, she seems cold, inaccessible, and cruel, with only occasional flickers of empathy for her husband.
While filmmakers can never be certain of how their work will be received, this week Benson and his stars admitted they were especially curious to see the reactions from audiences at the two early festival screenings, one of which unspooled Him first, the other began with Her.
"I want to know if people, after they see Her, find that Conor is this joking buffoon," said Chastain during an interview. "And then if they understand his point of view when they see his film."
One of the striking achievements of Disappearance, especially for those who watch Him first, is its equal treatment of Eleanor; the effect is of a quietly feminist victory.
"I hope that every movie I make is a quietly feminist film," says Chastain.
"I talked a lot about this during the release of Zero Dark Thirty," she continues, referring to last year's controversial film in which she played an obsessive CIA officer on the hunt for bin Laden.
"There were some great articles, they talked a lot about women in politics: that women in politics can't show emotion, but women in film always have to. It's a very confusing thing, when you see a lead character and it's a woman, and she's not a very emotional woman. You know, Obama cried when there was the [Sandy Hook] shooting – as anyone should. But if Hillary had done it, it probably would have been not a good thing.
"I think there's a problem in our society, and I'm very inspired by filmmakers like Ned Benson who are willing to shine a light on the female gaze."
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her plays Sat. Sept. 14, 9 a.m., at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.