Marriage is hard work. Ben Affleck said it, rather awkwardly, in his Oscars acceptance speech for Argo, allowing us to wonder what hells he and Jennifer Garner had been through that caused him to profess such a sentiment in front of millions of viewers. And this year, Affleck stars in Gone Girl, a movie that has prompted a lot of discussion about men, women, and the holy matrimony between the two.
Marriage has been the topic of many movies this year, from one of the first films centered on a same-sex married couple (Love Is Strange) and the unconventional twist in marriage counseling found in The One I Love. Of course, marriage is such a broad topic that I’m sure every year has numerous movies exploring the subject, yet with Gone Girl bringing the topic directly to the center of the cultural conversation at the moment, it’s hard not to think of other new releases in similar terms.
With a title like The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby, you’d be forgiven for confusing Ned Benson’s new two-hander with a thriller about a missing wife, something akin to Gone Girl. The films have some surface similarities — both tell stories very distinctly from both spouses’ perspectives, with subtle (or not-so-subtle) shifts in how similar events are remembered from both sides. And both feature married people taking drastic actions to get out of their relationships.
But Eleanor Rigby’s disappearance is more metaphorical than Amy Dunne’s. In the opening scenes of her segment in the two-part movie, Eleanor takes a flying leap off a bridge, hoping to end her life. It doesn’t work — or else her chapter of this story would be a really short movie — but it does signal a sort of rebirth, as she is given the chance to discover who she is outside of her marriage, something she hasn’t considered in a while.The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby is two movies — one from Eleanor’s perspective, the other following her husband Conor. (There’s also a studio-mandated spliced-together version that is to be avoided.) The word on the street is that Her is the more successful half of the film, and because I love Jessica Chastain so dearly, that is the segment I saw and the one I am reviewing. The segment follows Eleanor Rigby (named after the Beatles tune) as she reconnects with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) and little sister Katy (Jess Weixler), starts up some college classes, and tries to avoid her ex-husband and any mention of the recent tragedy in their past. There are a few flashbacks to happier times with Conor, including a perfectly lovely sequence in which the two dance by car headlights to OMD’s “So In Love.”
The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Her is a character piece with no plot to speak of. The film takes its time before cluing us in on what precisely happened to dampen Eleanor’s spirits so thoroughly. Is this just a rough patch in the marriage she’s overreacting to, or is her grief valid? Without a compelling and watchable actress like Chastain at the center, the film would probably be unbearable. Instead, it’s a pleasure just to watch Eleanor interact with the people around her, including Professor Friedman (Viola Davis), who plays an entirely different kind of professor on ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder. Here, she’s a lot more grounded, and a lot less hammy, and she reminds us why she’s a two-time Oscar nominee, even if her part here isn’t flashy enough to warrant such acclaim.
A less conventional look at a strained marriage comes in the Swedish film Force Majeur, which follows a happy family’s ski vacation as it goes from idyllic to fraught with tension and several moments of peril, turning potentially deadly several times. If that makes this sound like a thriller, it isn’t. At all. It’s a comedy. And yet, there are moments of genuine dread, as we can’t entirely rule out the death of some or all of these characters. It also features some absolutely gorgeous mountain cinematography, and the rare pleasure of seeing skiing depicted in a film. (This must’ve been a bitch to shoot.)
In Force Majeur, Tomas and Ebba seem to have an ideal marriage, and their kids Vera and Harry are cute as can be (though occasionally quite bratty). Then, during lunch one day, it suddenly appears that the entire family is about to be swallowed by an avalanche. Tomas and Ebba have extreme opposite reactions, and afterward, can’t agree on what really happened. Initially, it seems the couple can brush off the incident as a briefly terrifying situation that they can now look back on with humor, but that avalanche ends up lingering in both of their minds and causing major repercussions in their relationship.I’m being rather vague because Force Majeur is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. The film is completely unpredictable, taking us in several unforeseen directions, some of which pan out better than others. A newer couple, Mats and Fanni, end up getting dragged into the drama and finding their own bond tested by what happened to their friends. It’s a funny detour that gets dragged out a bit too long, as many scenes in Force Majeur do — much of the film unfolds in unbroken takes with dialogue that feels improvisational, and while that gives many scenes a fresh and funny energy, it also sometimes drags and makes the film feel overlong.
Tomas and Ebba’s initial disagreement over the incident takes place in front of a different couple (it’s a surprise to see Brady Corbet pop up in a Swedish film), in a terrifically awkward encounter. But Ebba’s later conversation with that woman about her open marriage feels somewhat off-topic, the necessity of its inclusion here questionable when there’s so much more to delve into. There’s no one scene in particular that shouldn’t be here, but some trimming might have helped the pacing to match the offbeat energy of much of the humor. The film is basically a weird black comedy, but it’s paced like a contemplative drama, which doesn’t always work in its favor.Force Majeur ends on a curious note — I’m not sure what to make of it, or of the climactic-seeming scene that comes before it involving a possible ski injury and the family’s separation in blinding whiteness. The movie that gives us a lot to think about, along with the most epically awkward scene of crying I’ve probably ever seen. It’s not often that you see a movie that is this funny, and still makes you wonder if the entire cast is going to be killed in a horrible bus accident at the end.
Thanks mostly to the languid pacing, I may not have loved absolutely every second of Force Majeur, but I did love the offbeat tone of the movie, and I have nothing but praise for the way it bucks tradition and presents us with a totally unpredictable and surprising narrative. The cast is uniformly spectacular, from the pathetically emasculated Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas and especially Lisa Loven Kongsli as the strong-willed, woefully betrayed Ebba. As several characters in Force Majeur state, you never know how you’ll react in a crisis until you’re right in the thick of it, and a good many of us might be disappointed to discover our own lack of bravado when the moment comes.
Not everyone can be a hero, and in both The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby and Force Majeur, it is the female half of the central married couple that must bear the brunt of the brooding and figure out how to soldier on without the support of her man. Structure aside, Eleanor Rigby is a very conventional indie drama, while Force Majeur is a strange and original dark comedy. Both are anchored by terrific female performances and, like Gone Girl, deal with wives let down by their husband’s inferiority, with plenty to say about the realities of marriage once the honeymoon is over.