Writing about The One I Love without spoilers is impossible. And there are several different levels of spoilers: the concept of the movie, the profusion of twists and turns along the way, and the multiple payoffs are all spoilers in their own way. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet, be warned that you might know more about it than you want to after reading this. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much the spoilers matter. Although Charlie McDowell’s feature debut has frequent moments of unsettling tension as the plot develops, they might not be rendered any less potent by knowing about them in advance. Anyway, the real developments are in the evolving relationship between Elisabeth Moss, who plays Sophie, and Mark Duplass, who plays Ethan. No matter how much you know in advance, their performances make for a movie that is hilarious, weird, unnervingly sincere and incredibly compelling.
The premise of Justin Lader’s script sounds pretty simple at first: Sophie and Ethan’s marriage is falling apart. The main reason for this is Ethan’s infidelity, for which Sophie has never forgiven him. Despite Ethan’s intense, borderline pathetic desire to make amends, Sophie just can’t stop viewing everything Ethan says and does as a stomach-turning fraud, marred by his dalliance. Their therapist, creepily played by Ted Danson, recommends a weekend retreat where the two of them can be completely alone. Conveniently enough, he has just the place in mind. It’s a beautiful estate in the countryside north of Los Angeles. “I’ve sent a lot of couples there and they’ve all come back… renewed,” Danson tells the couple.
Upon arrival, Sophie and Ethan find that the retreat may actually be helping them, but before long they discover something strange. There’s a guest house on the property and if Ethan goes in alone he finds a version of Sophie that’s not mad at him anymore (and wants him to eat delicious bacon, which “normal” Sophie denies him). If Sophie goes in alone she finds a version of Ethan who is slightly cooler than the real Ethan and who, instead of dithering, is able to speak frankly about his mistakes.
Initially, Sophie and Ethan happen to enter the guest house at separate times and neither realizes that they’re not really interacting with each other. In retrospect, this might be the saddest part of the movie. Each of them thinks that they’ve somehow managed to restart things with the other, to go back to a time when trust was possible and their troubles were not immutable. Ethan thinks that somehow Sophie loves him again. She seems unguarded and, amazingly, she doesn’t appear to regard him as a miserable excuse for a husband anymore. Sophie thinks that somehow Ethan has finally grown up, taken responsibility for the past, and found a way to look her in the eye with confidence. It would be easy for Moss or Duplass to overdo it while playing the other Sophie and Ethan, but they don’t. Even before we realize exactly what’s going on, there’s something different about the other versions of the characters, and yet not so different as to seem beyond the realm of possibility.
Before long, the real Ethan and Sophie figure out that something fishy is going on in the guest house. Of course they’re freaked out, but underneath that is something even more difficult to deal with: the other one hasn’t changed after all. Things you can’t take back have not been taken back. The love and excitement that they once felt for each other have not returned. The miscommunications and suspicion are as present as ever. It was about this point that I realized how much I liked this movie. All of this is funny and spooky and tremendously easy to watch. At the same time, it has a lot to say about how relationships can evolve. It contemplates, without making a big deal about it, the regret of choices made without really meaning to make them. I found myself thinking about how the chances one has to love somebody and be loved back are so few and far between. It’s hard to tell if Sophie and Ethan’s love was destined to vanish or if, over time, a love that could have lasted was eroded by ill-considered choices with no deeper meaning or inherent direction. The latter option is much more troubling and, thankfully, the movie makes no effort to answer this unknowable question.
With this cloud hanging over them, the pair make a speedy exit from their Twilight Zone of a retreat. They’re relieved to be away from the place, feeling lucky that, although it was a bizarre experience, at least the doppelgängers didn’t attack them or do any permanent damage. Or did they? It turns out that, upon further contemplation, the temptation to investigate further is too much for them to resist. Especially for Sophie who, once they return to the estate, increasingly realizes that she likes this new version of Ethan much better than the real one. Meanwhile, Ethan’s interactions with the other Sophie become more and more empty. He realizes that he doesn’t care about who he wants Sophie to be in some ideal world. He cares about who she really is because he still loves her, flaws and all. Too late. Running deep under breezy banter between Ethan and Sophie, as they hash out the repercussions of visiting their doubles, is a horrible inevitability. Ethan’s past cheating on Sophie doesn’t seem to have been motivated by not loving her, but it doesn’t matter. Sophie wants to love Ethan again, but she just can’t. Another question, unasked but ever-present: In a relationship, does motivation matter, or only actions?
There are further developments, including some that don’t make that much sense to me. In the end, though, the logical questions don’t bother me much. Although the movie plays with a spine-tingling tone, it doesn’t lean on the doppelgänger paradox elements too heavily. Instead it relies on a tight pace and elegant camera direction as a foundation on which Moss and Duplass can deliver fascinating performances as both versions of themselves.
I realize that the movie might still sound heavy despite my describing it as breezy and fun. It’s not. That’s what makes it good. In some ways the approach strikes me as a perfect balance to Under the Skin (which I like almost as much). Whereas Under the Skin is overtly single-minded and full of purpose, The One I Love’s apparent lack of self-importance and pathos is its strength. It’s sometimes as light and entertaining as a 1930s bickering couple comedy, sometimes as clever as ‘70s Woody Allen, sometimes as eerie as The Double Life of Véronique, sometimes as melancholy as Ozu, and always completely natural despite the heightened circumstances. In fitting all this together, The One I Love achieves something unique. I can’t think of another movie that balances disparate tones so effortlessly or contemplates serious questions so lightly.