If you haven’t yet seen The One I Love, please consider this article a giant SPOILER ALERT! and read no further. The reviews I read before seeing the film, which has been shown at numerous film festivals and began a limited U.S. release in August, did a good job of providing just enough information to preserve the surprises in this tricky, subtly mind-blowing movie, and I’ll try to do the same. However, if you’re one of those people whose enjoyment is ruined by even the slightest bit of foreknowledge, move right along. (Note re: Titanic: the ship sinks).
With a sharp, perceptive screenplay by Justin Lader, smart direction by Charlie McDowell and peerless performances by stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, The One I Love is one of those few films that temporarily alter your perception of reality, even after you’ve walked out of the theater. It’s a look at relationships, the roles people play and the masks they wear, and finally about the choices to be made between a tempting fantasy and a sometimes disappointing reality.
If I’m making this sound too high-minded and Bergmanesque, that’s not how The One I Love unfolds in its execution. Rather, it moves along like some of the best “puzzle” movies (e.g. Sleuth, House of Games), where the audience’s perception of who is playing who, in both senses of the word, keeps changing as the plot unfolds.
Moss and Duplass play Sophie and Ethan, a childless married couple stuck in a relationship rut. Its most obvious cause is infidelity (his), but more truthfully it’s the communication breakdowns and “Is that all there is?” ennui that affects every long-term couple sooner or later. In the opening scenes Sophie and Ethan are consulting a marriage counselor (played by Ted Danson) who eventually recommends the couple get away to an isolated retreat that, Danson assures them, will refresh and restart their tired marriage.
The retreat itself, which looks like a Martha Stewart-designed bed & breakfast nestled in a secluded California valley, is both lovely and seemingly deserted - no maids or hotel managers in sight. Bemused, guilty, but defensive Ethan and wary, hurt, and angry Sophie both seem to respond to the place’s magic, relaxing, having fun, and re-connecting emotionally and sexually. But that familiar doubleness - where you act like a different person, or different parts of your personality “come out and play” while you’re on vacation - becomes more literal, and more creepy, as a duplicate pair of Ethans and Sophies keep appearing and disappearing.
I won’t say too much more except to admire that the screenplay and direction make it quite plausible that these two reasonable, intelligent people, faced with a seemingly supernatural or cosmic impossibility, decide to just go with it - although Ethan maintains an amusing skepticism about the reality of what’s he’s experiencing for far longer than Sophie. It’s a sign that we’ve all seen enough Twilight Zone episodes, Syfy movies, and alternate-reality stories (Sliding Doors, the Broadway musical If/Then) that we, and the characters, don’t let a little thing like plausibility get in the way of exploring what it would be like to trade in your spouse, not for a totally new person but for an improved, 2.0 version of him or her.
Both actors contribute mightily to the film’s ability to keep the audience both involved and pleasantly befuddled. I’m not familiar with Duplass’ other work, but he does a fine job here creating both a warts-and-all, slightly doofy husband and an emotionally sensitive alpha male alternative.
Moss, known to Mad Men maniacs as the one and only Peggy Olson, has no trouble creating believable 21st-century women as the Sophie(s). As she demonstrates on the TV show, her ability to switch from admirable to annoying, to be both frustrated and frustrating - but always compelling - are put to good use here.
My recommendation is certainly to see The One I Love, but to do it with a friend rather than your significant other, should you be lucky/unlucky enough to have one. If you don’t take my advice, be prepared to spend a long evening discussing both the film and your own relationship. If it can stand that kind of scrutiny, be my guest.