The One I Love (2014, Charlie McDowell)
The older you get the more you realize how bad movies generally are at accurately depicting the complexity of long-term relationships. Everyone has their favorite exception; take the Fredric March-Myrna Loy coupling in The Best Years of Our Lives, which takes on a flawed but loving marriage believably and subtly, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, dissecting a breakup between two fundamentally decent but mismatched people from as many angles as are likely possible in the medium. But even films like those can feel limited, even facile, in the face of the actual profundity in a genuine connection between people and in the way that connection mutates, stabilizes or falls apart as years pass. One big problem of course is that contentment in and of itself is generally not a capital-s Story, which closes off many possibilities and dimensions; I’d personally dispute the Tolstoy-derived notion that warmth and security are somehow boring, but in conflict-based western narratives, you’re more likely to find demonstratively supportive and respectful but cheerfully imperfect romances featured as incidentals in films that aren’t strictly about them, like The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1934 version) or The Thin Man. After a time there’s something so frustrating about the way even good movies seem to homogenize the nature of human attraction and affection, or to twist everything back to the sort of elaborate despair that eventually comes to seem so terribly shallow.
The fact is, we can’t really get a decent handle on romantic love in cinema for two reasons: one is that, as David Byrne once put it, “love is kinda big.” The other is that it’s too singular and varied an experience. In the quest for the universal, a film like Blue Valentine or Her can end up accidentally displaying some ugliness and resentment that lurks under an innocently lovelorn surface and that has scarcely anything to do with marriage itself, at least less than more pressing matters of manipulation, narcisissm and abuse. Others, like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, carry the ring of painful truth but are cynical to a point that reinforces a kind of meaningless fatalism, sublime as those films may be; and to be honest, there are times in anyone’s romantic life when such negativity is cathartic, even comforting. Albert Brooks took the classic deficiencies of the unsteady partnership to their logical conclusion in the brilliant, maddening Modern Romance in 1980; propping up stories like that one, though, serve unfortunately to normalize awful — if sadly commonplace — behavior.
It seems the best we can really do is try to chip away, bit by bit, at experiences and their emotional meanings. It’s the only way that one’s own impressions of relationships at their best and worst can really carry through meaningfully to an audience, who can easily see through something that isn’t deeply felt. Like Eternal Sunshine and Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, the low-budget indie feature The One I Love, directorial debut of Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm, and of Mary Steenburgen, who has a voice-only cameo) tackles marriage through the prism of “puzzle” storytelling, in essence providing the safe abstraction of distance from what it’s really articulating. The film is about Sophie and Ethan, a couple in therapy; they seem to love one another and want the marriage to work but are both slipping into an ugly complacency that’s been hastened along by a cheating incident on Ethan’s part, upon which the film is wise to never fully elaborate.
We open innocently enough in the midst of a therapy session, with a sneering and rather out-of-place Ted Danson walking them through queries about their sex life, their growing disconnection and an amusingly failed attempt to recapture the magic of an early transformative event on an anniversary, which is a handy signal that the two of them are grappling vainly for a history that’s now out of their reach. McDowell and writer Justin Lader don’t reserve empathy for one character or the other; the opening scene recalls Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in the way it allows each of them to state a convincing argument, though the personalities that unfurl before us do an even better job of preventing any pat answers. Respect has slipped away enough that the couple can’t navigate a simple anecdote without snapping at one another, and the many resentments between them are not only stewing but are popping out into conversation repeatedly. The therapist sends them to an idyllic retreat, a big beautiful estate with two houses on the property. Once they are briefly separated after sharing some weed, the twist kicks into gear: each is having encounters with the other that only one of them remembers afterward. Before long, they’ve discovered that when they enter the guest house separately, they are confronted with what appears to be a clone of their partner — a clone except that something is ever so slightly different about them, and so long as they linger in the house the constant conflicts seem to evaporate. It’s like they’re a real couple again.
What happens thereafter quickly takes on the welcome tone of people realizing they’ve tapped into something strange and wondering how to exploit it, or whether to just walk away, something akin to what would happen in real life. Ethan directly references The Twilight Zone, an apt comparison. Rod Serling’s TV series nearly always used a fantastic but simple premise to explore a grounded human problem, whether personal or political, from the neighborly distrust and low-information histrionics of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” to the superstition and addiction in “Nick of Time,” in which a married couple find themselves at the mercy of a fortune-telling machine they believe is determining their destiny, despite a total absence of supporting evidence. At the end of that episode, the central couple escapes, but another, more ragged and miserable pair slip in just after them, still being held prisoner in their own town. This finale handily mirrors that of The One I Love.
More broadly, with all its conspiratorial meandering — which ultimately doesn’t much matter — about who the “extra” Ethan and Sophie are, where they came from, what was involved in recruiting or controlling them, etc., this film most readily calls to mind the episode “The Trouble with Templeton.” That installment follows an actor who’s seemingly permanently stuck on his long-dead first wife, to a degree that has come to torment him almost beyond repair; it’s expanded to a general longing for the world he knew some decades earlier. A supernatural sequence places him unexpectedly, Midnight in Paris-style, back in the world of his blissful younger days; he runs across a speakeasy where his first wife and all of his old friends are gathered together but all behave callously and dismissively of him, completely crushing his fond memories. But the operative moment comes when, disgusted, he storms out of the bar and everyone goes silent as they gaze forlornly behind him. The implication is that Templeton’s wife has appeared to him and then brutally shunned him specifically as an act of love, to facilitate his moving on and becoming full again. And so, for the audience recognizing that this was horribly painful for her, there’s a succession of gut punches reading succinctly: magic is real, there is an afterlife, but still the past is gone forever and you must carry on all the same. In this film none of the parties are dead, but there is a soft suggestion that some parts of each of them are, including those that were binding them.
What all of these stories and The One I Love have in common is a gimmick, which can be a useful if not profound tool for exploring a topic that would ordinarily be too cerebral or draggy to have common appeal when funneled into a narrative; some are more resourceful in using the gimmick to actually explore their interpersonal dynamics than others. In Eternal Sunshine, Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman took the not-altogether-successful approach of laying out all of the technical machinations of what permitted their nutty memory-cancelling notion to tick. The MacGuffin, in essence, became half of the story. Certified Copy took nearly the opposite tactic. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell play an antiques dealer and a writer, respectively, walking around the streets of Tuscany having a casual conversation. At one point they’re mistaken for a married couple, and for the remainder of the film they seem to have themselves transformed to a married couple who’ve known one another for years, with all the familiarity and complexity thereby implied. The change is never explained, whether they are engaging in some elaborate role-play or whether time and reality have themselves somehow shifted. In a sense, despite the refusal of Certified Copy to make its story explicit, both of these films suffer a bit from how much the “riddle” aspect of their narratives somewhat overtakes them. The most interesting elements of both of them are in the artful contrasts between emotional past and present, friendship and love, strangeness and familiarity. The idea that in order to toy with these things so recklessly we must have a rigid framework or “concept” feels inherently limiting.
The One I Love falls somewhere between these two extremes; it withholds a lot of information, and indeed shows little interest in “rationalizing” the nature of what’s really going on in the guest house, but uses what we do know in such a way that the science fiction or supernatural portions of the narrative coalesce extremely well with the evolution in our understanding of who these two people are and what specifically has happened to them. McDowell follows one fundamental Hitchcockian rule of cinematic storytelling, which is that we generally have the same amount of information as the characters, and when they start to react to the bizarre happenings they follow the logical progression that carefully matches up with our own impressions. First they just want to get the hell out, then curiosity lures them back to the retreat. Then they start to negotiate how to investigate this unpredictable event. The easy metaphor, somewhat naturally given the infidelity in Sophie and Ethan’s past, seems to be to the hurt, painful negotiations of boundaries that exist either when a monogamous commitment has been breached or when it’s willfully opened. As they set “ground rules,” navigate time limits and decide what’s permitted and what’s not, it’s difficult not to compare their conversations and nervous, excited behavior to a couple deciding to openly date other people, or to embrace kink or swinging, or whatever — any kind of potential emotionally or sexually-driven change that could alter the fabric of a relationship, every step forward cautious.
The irony of all this happening as a result of couples therapy is enjoyably devious, even if there’s something rather disturbing about the implication that counseling — which is, frankly, something a lot more dysfunctional marrieds should consider — will inevitably lead to being snared into some sort of low-key version of the death trap in Moon (though no more so, I guess, than what Orphan rather brazenly insinuated about adoption). Herein, though, lies the great utility of this film’s gimmick: it exists strictly to give us a context in which to consider every iteration of this marriage’s failings. Mark Duplass plays Ethan as aloof, coldly logical and hair-trigger defensive; in the guest house he is attentive, athletic, artistic, and the kind of “fun guy” so spontaneous he never seems to enter a room without being surprised to have ended up there. The wounds in Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are ruining her perception of her husband — said dim perception, of course, being largely correct — and creating a chasm in her because she wants badly to be able to let go of his transgression. And so does he, without ever having really confronted it. The bubblier guest house version of Sophie is (in one of the film’s more egregious missteps) the stereotype of a fawning wife mocked so memorably by Julie Delpy (“so, you’re a wriiiiiter?”) in Before Midnight. She doesn’t question her hubby when he disappears for hours at a time without explanation, she takes his general scoffing attitude toward her in stride like she took some of the potion in John Collier’s “The Chaser,” and my god — she even cooks bacon, which the script is a little too careful to earmark as Important when Ethan inexplicably remarks “You hate it when I eat bacon!”
And of course, once the rules are set they begin to be stretched. He might be abrupt as hell and a holy terror to get on with, but Ethan’s round of cheating has turned him into a man who’s almost aggressively faithful. He’s brusque and distant when around the subservient guest house Sophie and wants nothing more than to get to the bottom of why he and his wife have found themselves in this wild scenario. At first, Sophie’s motivated by the same desire but it starts to become too easy to stay, too hard to go back, and her husband’s own transgression has, understandably, loosened her stringent morals, and she feels more at home with her idealized “new and improved” Ethan than with the glowering specter of bad feelings she’s supposed to be patching things up with. Though I was very young when I personally was in a similar situation (the cheating, not the clone of myself seducing my significant other, so far so good on that front), this progression is remarkably realistic; indeed, I don’t believe I have seen a film that more convincingly tackled the aftermath of emotional or sexual infidelity… with one obvious exception.
An unmistakable precedent to this film, Eyes Wide Shut is a witty, sinister portrait of brewing distrust and resentment in an otherwise ridiculously ordinary marriage between a privileged couple in New York. It shares with The One I Love a pawing at the doorways, positive and negative, opened up by an adulterous rift or just a vocal confession in a long-term relationship. Suddenly conversations and questions can be had that once seemed taboo. But also, if one gives oneself permission to see an errant spouse and therefore the “rules” as a whole differently, there is the sense of excitement and terror that one is tampering with forces and desires that belong to an unpredictable outside world. And things escalate: in Stanley Kubrick’s film, Tom Cruise flirting with women who are much too young for him leads to a tearful, stoned confession from his wife about a time she seriously considered cheating. In his arrogance he’s caught completely off guard that such a thing would even occur to her, and then he spends an evening comically in over his head after the fight trying to create sexual chaos for himself, with literally every attempt at a fling unraveling crazily and finally just turning him into a shy, confused Buster Keaton at a ritualistic orgy, and then he is “found out” by other characters in an increasingly threatening manner. In The One I Love the escalation is more linear but still driven by the male character’s self-righteousness; we just have longer and longer guest house sojourns for Sophie and finally one in which a breach of trust by Ethan changes the game permanently.
Eyes Wide Shut is ultimately about the acceptance that love is to a great extent a choice, that bonds are not necessarily easy to break but easy to transform, and that sexual desire is not beholden to the societal restrictions we place upon it; these subjects aren’t so deeply touched on in The One I Love, but the films give a common impression that a strong marriage is a shelter weathering all manner of pressure from the world outside. And there is a very telling moment when Sophie and Ethan are discussing the night she spent with his guest house counterpart and he flashes a withering glance at her when she says “I’d never knowingly cheat on you,” because in this statement of good faith she has in fact dredged up his mistakes all over again — and indirectly stated the scorn and slight she continues to bear. These two can never break down onscreen like both Cruise and Nicole Kidman do in Eyes, but the unstated history in their exchanges tell us enough about the emotional ache and agony in the recent past.
The greatest profundity The One I Love achieves is in its contrast between the past, or utopian, versions of Ethan and Sophie, and their weary “real world” variants. The Ethan and Sophie encountered in the guest house seem to represent the “perfect versions” of themselves each probably tried to embody during the courting phase of their relationship, when all things were new and exciting, eventually to give way to either a comfortably all-encompassing intimacy, a quick disintegration, or whatever the hell it is these two are doing but heaven knows a lot of people do it. When Sophie is with the “mystery” Ethan, she feels renewed because he says the things she longs for her actual partner to say, and is attentive and brash and funny. You can see how she gets lost in the memory and the bliss of it even as the real Ethan probes more and more obsessively (and jealously) into the nature of the whole exercise. His own experience of the guest house is less evocative. Unfortunately, this is in large part because Lader does a relatively poor job giving Sophie any kind of real depth. She’s believable enough as a wife who’s been deeply wronged, and Moss is exceptionally good in those scenes, keeping just the right suggestion that she could return to a spirited understanding and enthusiasm if her husband gained some self-awareness. But there’s something so tired about the aforementioned scenes that have her representing Ethan’s wants and needs, and seemingly male desire itself, as centering on servitude; the later encounter between the two Sophies in the kitchen, culminating in a very Cruel Intentions verbal catfight, fares little better as an indicator that Lader knows how to write women believably. Moss never really establishes, or gets an opportunity to establish, a meaningful distinction between her roles that has anything like the extent of the change that’s so apparent in Duplass’ more nuanced take on a meatier character.
The One I Love remains engaging and relatively unpredictable until the third act; at roughly the point when all four characters are suddenly in the same room for the first time, it feels like there are few places for the film to go with the story it’s actively telling, as opposed to the one it really wants to tell. And while the ideal, Richard Matheson-like devastating ending would leave the real Ethan trapped and alone, which is the reality of what’s happening anyway, there is an unnecessarily busy Cabin in the Woods climax and a groan-inducingly obvious final-shot “twist” in the Inception mold. Nevertheless, it’s a film that mounts itself on a rather goofy premise to take love and marriage extremely seriously, and to try and understand what divides those who were once in sync. In so linking its head and heart it manages to explore nearly all of the narrative possibilities of its premise; at the end of the day I’m less certain about the emotional ones. Maybe that’s because the real story here is something as simple as two people growing apart who couldn’t really be fused again. When Sophie sees how much she’s lost over the years, there’s no going back for her, and there probably shouldn’t be. The film ends a bit ham-handedly with the Mamas and the Papas’ cover of “Dedicated to the One I Love,” but a more apt choice might have been “Wrong” by Everything But the Girl, the operative stanza of which is: “You can pull a little bit, there’s a little give and take / and love’ll stretch a little bit, but finally it’s gonna break.”