By Melissa Maerz
September 22, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
Sarah Shatz

All the lonely people. Where do they all come from? Director Ned Benson has a theory: Early in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, an NYU professor (Viola Davis) lectures about the ”impenetrability of one’s thoughts” and the idea that individuals are ”separate and distinct from the world and from others.” In other words, we’re all alone together. The original version of Benson’s film makes that argument through two feature-length companion pieces, Her and Him, which track the dissolution of the marriage of psychology grad student Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and restaurateur Conor (James McAvoy) from each of their perspectives. (They don’t always sync up.) It’s easy to understand why there might be a market for a shorter cut, Them, that combines the two into a single story, but it undermines Benson’s whole thesis. (The 201-minute Her/Him will be available next month in limited release.)

Told in the wake of a Very Bad Thing that unravels the relationship, Disappearance is still a thoughtful meditation on loss, but even the short version is a lot to take. Conversations play like academic dissertations, imparting the emotional impact of a scene instead of just letting us feel it. ”Tragedy is a foreign country,” Eleanor’s father (William Hurt) tells her. ”We don’t know how to talk to the natives.” Characters abruptly explain their own behavior: ”I never wanted to be a mother,” Eleanor’s mom (Isabelle Huppert) confesses, out of nowhere. Themes are spelled out too clearly, from Eleanor’s allegorical name to the background movie posters of Masculin/Féminin and A Man and a Woman, two films about subjectivity. Yet Disappearance is worth watching for Chastain’s fierce performance as a woman swallowed up by bone-deep grief. If we can feel exactly what Eleanor is feeling, maybe we’re not so alone after all. B

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  • R
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  • 119 minutes
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