Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass play a married couple on the brink of divorce. In an effort to save their relationship they take their psychologists (Ted Danson) advice and escape on a vacation together. Instead of finding marital bliss however the couple find something much stranger.
The One I Love is a well cast film. There’s Elizabeth Moss (Top of the Lake 2013, Mad Men 2007), Mark Duplass (The League 2009) and Ted Danson (Bored to Death 2009). They’re all strong personalities in their own right but collectively they add depth and realism to the film itself.
In fact this is definitely the strength of The One I Love. It’s a claustrophobic film with very few cast members. Most of the duration of the film is spent with Ethan and Sophie and it is their story, their escape, and their marriage that the narrative hones in on.
It’s not quite the relationship saga it seems however and director Charlie McDowell’s first feature finds a much more intriguing premise. The couple go on their retreat to find some answers for their relationship but what they find is something inexplicable, odd, and unsettling.
That’s as far as a plot summary can go with this film. Any further and a synopsis would become laden with spoilers. The best description for this film is that it blends a traditional marital narrative with a science fiction premise. It’s a hybrid story and its surreal (perhaps metaphysical) edge brings to mind Safety Not Guaranteed (2012).
The premise takes precedent in The One I Love and the actors’ work very well to develop it into a convincing narrative. Reality isn’t an easily definable thing and the idea of exploring a relationship immediately presents problems in terms of perspective. Both Duplass and Moss do well to convey this conflict and it takes the narrative to uneasy places and uncomfortable outcomes.
In Ethan and Sophie we find people that don’t particularly like each other, people that are struggling with ghosts from their past, and the problems facing them in the future. They are people trying to find themselves but they constantly get lost with each other. The interesting thing about The One I Love is the questions that are posed. They’re questions intended for the characters themselves but they also prompt the audience to ask what if.
Ethan and Sophie’s fractured relationship
This is the strength of the concept and also its main fault. By putting ourselves in the character’s shoes we can start to see how they ended up where they are. But we’re also impartial; this isn’t our relationship, so at times it seems difficult to understand why they stick at it. There’s a distinct problem of empathy inherent in The One I Love.
It’s a film that’s populated by great actors but it’s a shame that they don’t manage to convey more humanity. A couple trying to save a relationship should have more to fight for. Instead we’re left with the end and we don’t get to see enough of their happier moments. It’s a film about relationship problems and it could do with a few more solutions.
Other answers, other solutions
But that’s also the charm. The One I Love suggests that there are other answers entirely, that there are options that Ethan and Sophie haven’t considered yet. It’s the potential that the film focuses on and not always the potential for them to succeed. We spend a lot of time testing and pushing boundaries and it leaves us with more questions than when we started out.
The One I Love is a sweet little indie with great performances from everyone involved. It’s taught, tightly framed, and often unsettling but the mystery and intrigue carry us right up until the ending. Perhaps the final act is a little too elliptical, a little too resolved, but that’s a perspective open to debate.
The cinematography from Doug Emmet serves to create the tone of the film. The shots are often dark, the perspectives removed, and the effect is more akin perhaps to a horror film than the relationship saga the narrative suggests. But the best storytelling device used is the fact that Ethan and Sophie are distinctly normal. As a couple there is nothing unusual about them but the situation they find themselves in is.
The One I Love is a relationship piece that stands as a confident first feature from director Charlie McDowell. It’s fun, its focussed, and the questions it poses about identity are deeper than they first appear.