Director – Charlie McDowell, Screenplay – Justin Lader, Producer – Mel Eslyn, Photography – Doug Emmett, Music – Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans, Visual Effects Supervisor – Stefan Scherperel, Production Design – Theresa Guleserian. Production Company – Duplass Brothers.
Mark Duplass (Ethan), Elisabeth Moss (Sophie), Ted Danson (The Therapist)
Husband and wife Ethan and Sophie are going through marital problems. Their therapist recommends they go away to a special retreat that has worked for all his other couples. They arrive at the house and settle in. Ethan wakes up the next morning confused at Sophie claiming that they had sex the night before when he is certain they did not. Other puzzling things occur. They make the realisation that whenever one of them enters the guest house the other who appears to them is a different self, one that appears much more perfect and ideal. They agree to explore the phenomenon but Ethan thinks that Sophie is starting to be attracted to the other him. They are startled when the other Ethan and Sophie emerge from the guest house and sit down to dine with them. No explanation for what is happening seems apparent but Ethan then uncovers evidence that something sinister is being planned and believes that the other Ethan and Sophie are intending to steal their lives.
The Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark, have become favourites on the indie scene in the last few years. They first appeared with Jay directing, both co-writing and Mark starring in The Puffy Chair (2005) and subsequently went onto the slasher parody Baghead (2008), Cyrus (2010), Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) and The Do-Deca Pentathlon (2012). More recently, both have produced a number of films for others with the likes of The Skeleton Twins (2014), Manson Family Vacation (2015) and 6 Years (2015). These have included the genre likes of the wilderness brutality film Black Rock (2012), which Mark wrote for his wife Katie Aselton to direct, Bad Milo! (2013) about a man with a demon inside his ass, as well as the quirky time travel romance Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and the horror film Creep (2014) both starring Mark, as well as producing the tv series Room 104 (2017-20). After Safety Not Guaranteed, Mark’s name began to rise as an actor and he has appeared in an increasing number of mainstream films including Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Mercy (2014), Tammy (2014) and The Lazarus Effect (2015). With The One I Love, they produce and Mark stars for newcomer director Charlie McDowell.
I initially passed The One I Love over, assuming from the title that it was a romance film or mundane relationship drama thus of no interest to this site. It was not until I read a review on another genre site that my attention perked up. Certainly, you would easily be forgiven for thinking of The One I Love as an indie relationship drama. It starts that way but soon veers off into striking and original genre territory.
If I had to coin a description I would think of something like the weepie romantic fantasy The Enchanted Cottage (1945) about a magical retreat where people are transformed into their ideal love and the recent Coherence (2013), which had people blurring between multiple selves in different timelines. It also falls well within the confines of a spate of doppelganger films that came out in the previous year with Another Me (2013), The Double (2013) and Enemy (2013).
The One I Love has been designed as a minimalist work – the single location of a home that could easily have been borrowed/rented by the production crew and is written around a crew of two actors (plus a single scene with Ted Danson). The film is slow to start. The game of meeting with the other selves is interesting for awhile but the film never seems to be going anywhere. There are not quite the twists and turns on the premise that say Coherence placed on the similar theme.
Where the film picks up considerably is in the latter third where the other selves make themselves known and all four sit down to a dinner together where the tensions and twists between each of the parties start to make themselves felt. It is hard to tell the two Elisabeth Moss’s apart but Mark Duplass does some great acting delineating between the bespectacled and awkward original and the smooth and handsomely assured double. The dinner party scene, which is edited in a way as to convince us that all four personalities are interacting across a table and in an often heated argument, holds some of the best editing using the same actors since Dead Ringers (1988).
Of course, the contentious question that hangs over the entire film is “what is going on?” You can guarantee that The One I Love is going to be a film that has audiences debating what it is about for years after like other films such as Eraserhead (1977), The Shining (1980) and Mulholland Dr. (2001). The frustrating thing about the film is that it is a series of loose hanging clues that leave the suggestion of answers just beyond our reach. [PLOT SPOILERS] Who are the other selves and where did they come from? An alternate timeline? Idealised versions of the current selves? Alien body snatchers? The hints we get in with the calls to friends and family to get answers about personal questions, the stolen clothes, the audio tapes of the doubles rehearsing to get the identities down, as well the suggestion that Ted Danson is facilitating this so that people from elsewhere can slot in and take over the lives of regular people, suggests some type of body snatchers film. On the other hand, what do we make of pieces like where they say they need to develop emotional connection for the other selves before they can leave the guest house and where the Mark Duplass double is prevented from leaving by an invisible forcefield?
[SPOILERS CONTINUE] And what then to make of the ending where the original Duplass leaves with Sophie but in the final fadeout she is seen making him bacon – something the original hates? This is an ending that has been the source of great debate on internet bulletin boards – is it the doppelganger as the scene suggests or is it the real Sophie having decided to give in to Duplass’s wishes as others argue? (I tend to go with the former on the grounds that you should read the meaning of a scene by the direction in which the director seems to be pointing us emotionally). As with much of the film, Charlie McDowell gives it a wilful ambiguity that leaves the answers fascinatingly dangling.
Charlie McDowell subsequently went on to make The Discovery (2017) about what happens in the aftermath of scientific proof of the existence of the afterlife and the non-genre house burglars/hostage drama Windfall (2022).