If you were bopping around the East Village in the summer of 2012, there’s a good chance you’ll catch yourself in the background of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which filmed in the neighborhood that August and just hit Netflix. Ned Benson’s trilogy about a married couple’s separation following the death of their child isn’t just a unique cinematic experiment — it’s also worth watching if you’ve ever had a relationship play out between East Houston and 14th Street.
Similar in conceit to The Affair, the trio of stand-alone films tells the same-but-different story first from the perspective of the husband (James McAvoy), in Him, and then from the perspective of the wife (Jessica Chastain), in Her. A third version, Them, combines scenes from both films to merge both perspectives.
In Him, Conor Ludlow desperately struggles to find his wife Eleanor — and find out where her mind is at — after she up and leaves the apartment they share together, at 198 East 7th Street.
At the same time, Conor helms Midnight Kitchen, a wine bar populated by “’emerging adult’ East Villagers” (per Benson’s original script) and located in the former home of Zeitzeff at 18 Avenue B. One day, his chef Stu (Bill Hader) spots the elusive Eleanor walking near Astor Place, where the former NYU student is trying to reboot her life by taking classes at Cooper Union, at 41 Cooper Square. On another occasion he spots her at The Smile (in the original script, it was the decidedly less chic Cosi). Conor follows her past Ray’s Pizza Bagel Cafe to the Astor Place subway station but it’s not till later, after crashing her class, that he has a gut-wrenching confrontation with her on the corner of East 6th Street and Taras Shevchenko Place.
Eventually, the distraught Conor moves in with his dad, a morose Keith McNally type who, as the “Mick Jagger of the restaurant game,” casts a long shadow on his son. Spencer Ludlow (Ciaran Hinds) lives in a brick townhouse in the West Village and runs a little place called Ana Cafe (you’ll recognize it as Acme).
Obviously, the East Village plays an integral role in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. The original script specified East Village locations and described extras as “EAST VILLAGERS,” “SAME OLD EAST VILLAGE LADY pushing her shopping cart,” and “NYU GIRLS.” Connor’s apartment was to be a “slightly dilapidated ivy covered brownstone” on Avenue A near East 7th Street, with creaky wooden floors and a copies of the Village Voice lying around. Producer Cassandra Kulukundis, in the film’s production notes, says that the neighborhood’s “transitory stage” was a good reflection of the couple’s relationship: “You’ll see a lot of construction and it’s like a little metaphor for the characters trying to transition themselves through something.”
Eleanor’s story, Her, begins with the same flashback to happy coupledom that Conor’s begins with: having just dined and ditched at Casimir (Benson’s script called for the bygone Uovo), the young lovers race down Avenue B and into Tompkins Square Park, where they collapse in the grass together. The original script called for fireflies, and somehow they’re actually floating around in the film: “Usually there aren’t fireflies in the middle of the East Village in New York City, but on that one night we were shooting, the fireflies hatched and there were thousands of them,” Benson says in the production notes. “It was such a crazy night because it only happens once a year.”
After this, Eleanor’s story diverges from her husband’s, and we find out just where she was when Conor was pining after her in Him. For one thing, she was recovering from a suicidal dive off of the Manhattan Bridge.
Her is much less East Village-based than Him, since Eleanor — with the exception of her classes at Cooper Union, a visit to the Van Leeuwen truck, and a night of clubbing at 1 Oak — spends most of her time recuperating at her parents’ house in Westford, Connecticut. But there’s one scene where she bumps into Stu outside of Porsena on East 7th Street, and we see that walk to the Astor Place subway station replayed again from her perspective.
All three movies end, hauntingly, where they began — in Tompkins Square Park — but only in one of the versions is it made clear whether the couple will reconnect.
Watching Him and Her (which together add up to a good 3 hours, 16 minutes) can be as slow-going as you’d expect from a portrayal of characters with major psychological hangups. But they amount to a neat trick: Benson shows how one partner in a couple can wallow obsessively while the other simply moves on (as one character puts it: “It’s funny how a person just by living can damage another person beyond repair”). And he brings to life the fractured priorities that alienated each partner from the other to begin with: in Him, Eleanor looms in Conor’s mind and there’s almost no indication that he had a child; in Her, the child looms in Eleanor’s mind and there’s very little indication, at first, that she had a husband.
Watching Them will be redundant once you’ve seen Him and Her, and I can’t imagine that watching it instead of the first two installments is nearly as satisfying. But, hey, do whatever you want: you’ve got the Roku app on your iPhone and the weekend to kill.