Warning: There be spoilers here. It’s not possible to talk about The One I Love in a meaningful way without them. But it’s a movie best seen with an open mind. So I encourage you, if you haven’t seen it, to do so. It’s not perfect, but the first two acts are brilliant and it’s original enough to warrant a look. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Back? Okay, here we go.
Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play Ethan and Sophie, a young couple on the brink of divorce. They’ve drifted apart. Their counselor sends them to a remote retreat for a weekend getaway. He believes it’s just what they need to reconnect and rediscover one another.
The retreat turns out to be a sizable country estate, complete with pool and guest house. Ethan and Sophie arrive and discover they’re the only people present. They settle in, have a nice dinner, and smoke some marijuana.
Sophie wanders over to the guest house. Ethan joins her. They laugh, talk and have a wonderful time. The best they’ve had in years. They have sex. Later, Sophie heads back to the main house to grab some things. Inside, she’s surprised to find Ethan lying on the couch.
She laughs and asks how he’s beaten her back. Ethan looks confused. He’s just woken up. Sophie stops laughing. She asks him why he’s acting like this after they just has sex. Ethan looks at her with bewilderment. He tells her he’s been asleep on the couch since they smoked the marijuana. Sophie storms off, furious at Ethan’s unfunny joke.
Ethan wanders over to the guest house and falls asleep on the couch there. In the middle of the night, Sophie joins him. They snuggle. Ethan wakes to find Sophie making breakfast. Including bacon. Sophie hates bacon.
Up to this point, the film has cultivated a subtle aura of menace. The long shadow-filled shots of Sophie walking back to the house and through the empty kitchen wouldn’t seem out of place in a home invasion thriller.
But now we’ve got an inkling of what’s going on, and to the film’s credit, it doesn’t drag things out. Ethan and Sophie soon realize that when one of them enters the guest house alone, they’re greeted by a doppelgänger of the other.
They run. Again, credit to the film. It’s what most folks would do. But then Ethan and Sophie get to thinking about it. Especially Sophie. They talk. The film’s tone shifts from menacing to quirky. Sophie suggests going back. Weren’t they there to try new things? Ethan agrees. They return to the retreat and set some ground rules for the guest house. Fifteen minute sessions, no intimate activity. Total honesty.
Of course, these rules soon go out the window. Sophie begins sneaking out to see the other Ethan. Ethan ends up impersonating his doppelgänger in order to sleep with Sophie.
Later, Ethan gets some voicemails from friends and family members. The messages suggest that Ethan made a series of calls in the middle of the night asking random questions about his past. Some of his clothes seem to have gone missing as well.
Soon the doppelgängers confront Ethan and Sophie as a couple. The four try to have a nice dinner, but Ethan’s suspicion and resentment bubble over. He storms off to the guest house. Once inside, he finds he can’t get out.
In time, Sophie’s doppelgänger arrives. Then the film falls apart.
Up to this point, the doppelgängers felt like a novel device the script employed to visualize Ethan and Sophie’s perceptions of one another. This sort of thing could feel like a gimmick and veer into cheesy fantasy, but the film stays grounded by focusing on the harsh realities of trying to make a relationship work.
To this end, the doppelgängers require no explanation. They exist to serve the story. The film even floats this notion, suggesting that some things “Just happen.”
But the movie isn’t confident enough to leave it at that. And so Sophie’s doppelgänger reveals the truth to Ethan. Her and Doppelgänger Ethan were another couple sent to the retreat like Ethan and Sophie, but now they’re trapped. The only way they can leave is to break up Ethan and Sophie so they can take their place. But something’s gone wrong. The other Ethan has fallen in love with the real Sophie. He’s planning to leave with her.
After that wealth of exposition, the plot kicks in. Doppelgänger Sophie lets Ethan out of the guest house and distracts Doppelgänger Ethan (by posing as the real Sophie) so that Ethan can warn Sophie. When Sophie refuses to leave with him, Doppelgänger Ethan tries leaving by himself. An invisible wall knocks him cold. Ethan and Sophie leave.
The next we see, they’re lying in bed giggling. Sophie gets up and offers to make breakfast, asking if Ethan wants bacon.
The film name-drops The Twilight Zone but the first two acts are more reminiscent of David Lynch’s work. Like Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, The One I Love explores the subject of identity through a strange, inexplicable event. But the difference is that in Lynch’s films, the character’s motivations are never explicitly verbalized. If you define them, the rest of the story must serve them. When it doesn’t, you have plot holes.
And boy does The One I Love have a lot of them. The whole film doesn’t make any sense, really. What was the point of imprisoning couples there? Why transform the previous couples into doppelgängers of the next ones? Why can they only leave after the other two have broken up? Why did their therapist send them in the first place?
Despite all this, The One I Love impressed me. It’s a brilliant concept that’s handled with the perfect tone. That it goes off the rails at the end doesn’t detract from the great performances and it’s biting insight into relationships. The plot holes don’t ruin the movie, they just handicap it.
Now, just imagine if it didn’t try to explain the doppelgängers. Imagine if the scene where Ethan hears the other couple’s voices turning into his and Sophie’s was left out. Imagine if when Ethan confronted doppelgänger Sophie about not being real, she just sat and stared at him with that slightly unnatural smile. Then cut to the scene of Ethan and Sophie back home in bed laughing and Sophie getting up to make breakfast.
I suppose this ending would leave some portion of the audience wanting. Lynch’s films are famous for that. They’re like Lego sets. They provide the audience with the building blocks of a story, but leave it to the viewer to create their own interpretation and meaning. Unfortunately, The One I Love is less like a Lego set and more like a puzzle. One that’s missing a few pieces.