A conflicting romantic, mumblecore-like, comedy, with a frequently stirring mystery and flashes of Twilight Zone, wound around a Charlie Kaufman-like mystery-box, Charlie McDowell’s debut, The One I Love, turns expectations upside down, inside out, and then asks its audience it make sense out of it.When the camera first introduces Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), they are just like any other couple: playful and full of potential, a kinship perhaps paralyzed by a rough past. From the outside, it is a cracked facade that has lost its smoothness over the years, the completion of a former whole whose broken pieces may have one day held their union together.
The emotionality that comes from the bonding of love and marriage can be as incomprehensible as trying to read a foreign language, with a definition that is too busy to compress down to something as familiarly and mentally definable as friendship. The severance of friendship is less of a blow to a human’s mental state than love, which gives as much as it takes, and then some. We get the idea of friendship. When it does not work, they end, and we move on. Nowadays they are even terminated in faceless fashion, over Facebook, saving everyone the awkwardly embarrassing moments of “uhs” and “ums.”
But love (let’s give it a shot) at its most sincere— like a circularly transmittable virus, brought about in the form of memories, thoughts, recollections, and all other human ways of remembrance — finds its way back into their hosts’ brains once it has possessed a woman or a man, long after it has ended.It is less a partnership than a feeling of obsessive communal ownership that happens between two people. On both sides, it is a Faustian deal, struck at the expanse of emotional happiness, whose presence is governed by the liveliness of love itself.
(I fully understand I’m struggling, too, here.)
But, let’s call the ownership Ethan and Sophie have for each other in The One I Love a bit more choosy and freeform. When the two of them are introduced again, they are seen sitting right across from a shrink, putting forward their many problems that may have pulled their marriage apart. After a game of back-and-forth, it is established that the excitement that used to be there has tarnished, and that they have had to “re-create” that missing spark forcibly, when “it used to be so easy,” Ethan laments while in therapy. On the advice that they go on a little retreat that will have them coming out “renewed,” as Ted Danson’s uncredited shrink emphatically posits as if there is more meaning to be taken away from that choice of word, they take his suggestion. It is one of those deliveries of a line that, despite its placement within the story, talks — off-handedly — more to the audience than the leads.
Likely shot somewhere in California, when they arrive at this unspecified guest house (hiccup-free), surrounded by Edenic beauty – naturally cause for many Kodak-moments – on which the sun shines like a beaming spotlight, those back-and-forths get to be given a workout.
McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader, with a carefully arranged script that elegantly pulls its curtain back when time comes, eases its characters in and out of the house, concealing the low budget affair with an idyllic setting that has more past its doors than what appears on the sun-baked outside.
After some revealing admissions made at their therapy session involving cheating and betrayal, the cabin they are staying at may or may not – they find out – hold a mirror against their relationship which may or may not reflect their own fantasized and idealized companionship, whatever that means to them. Using no more than two actors — around whom the central plot closes in on – Lader’s deconstructionist tendencies allow for a conversational tone that becomes a discourse on perfecting the ineffability of love, kinship and the fallibility inherent in the pledge of affection.
Once the introductory setup is established, Lader uses the remainder of the two acts — the second much stronger than the last — to highlight the underlying struggle to reason with the flaws of a sinking relationship. To go further would be like blowing down a house of cards. But the subtextual dilemma is more illuminated from within — with dialogue that was mostly improvised — than necessarily from McDowell’s probing camera (as confused as the audience), sliding and sneaking in and out of doors that could be thought of as portals into either of the characters’ psyches, and the wishful thinking transpiring thereof. It is a clever visual trick McDowell brings into visual effect.
Both Moss (livelier than a 12-year-old) and Duplass (as affably kind as ever) show themselves equally as panicked and freaked out at the many situations, in material that blends their strongest qualities together into something that has the texture, and energy, of cartoonish mischief. There is also, attributed to Lader’s enigmatic writing, a humane touch of disorderly and interactive confusion for the watching audiences’ amusement, specifically in matters of response. The film, enclosed in a self-aware space, jammers, winces at and intimately talks as much to itself as it takes on the thinking of its knowing audience, who would mostly be asking the same exact questions in reaction to everything on screen.
Balancing the internal logic becomes key to unlocking the last act, when the film’s duet graduates to being a quartet, even though it stumbles in more ways than one, even as the acting gets increasingly more layered in these scenes. The arrival of these two guests, at once more helping, more gregariously open, aggressively more disruptive and certainly more attractive than their hosts, spells double date disaster on all sides. This development, though multi-dimensional, makes the already screwball-like, tit-for-tat feel a bit louder, more linked and genre-bending, for better and worse.
Together, whether they are sitting across from each other trading stale glances or having a deliciously catty dinner party that touches the uncanny, they spin the whole weekend into a game of one-upmanship, a bit too obviously shown in a game of poker. Mostly held aloft during the first two acts by sharp writing, the movie’s George Berkeley-philosophizing of the “infinite mind” and paradoxical truisms of perception the third act flirts with gets pushed aside. Instead, losing track of those ideas, it gets a bit too comfortable, getting lost in its own hall of mirrors, with an ending that is too concerned with delivering a formal punch line that still engenders discussion about what it was that really happened. Elisabeth Moss, wearing a face as expressively unpredictable as love itself, takes the role of a woman who is, as often as not, conscious of her sense of self, in a constant battle of wits against that sense of self.
Moss can be very malleable as an actress, who gets to stretch herself here, with emotions mostly seen on her face and her way of speaking. She zigzags between happy-go-lucky, calmly sweet and caring, sentimentally gentle, and accommodatingly robotic (with Stepford-like levels of fright), being nothing other than a woman of great will, trying to restore her falling relationship. Taken broadly, the movie puts a mask on the imperfections of what constitutes incompatibility, knowingly working to make itself the opposite, through toying with the — really — limitlessly four-dimensional boundaries of love.