After commenting on Coherence a few days ago, my friend and regular commenter Baldwin recommended The One I Love as another compelling low budget film. So I rented it on iTunes (a challenge to download it here in Indonesia, where I am for the time being) and watched it today at a coffee / doughnut shop, while I was enjoying a day off.
There are some similarities to Coherence in a superficial way – the movie moves into a progressively (and only partially) explained science fiction territory, features quite a limited cast and limited number of sets, and was partially improvised. In this case, the actors knew the whole story from the beginning, but the dialog was still largely created on set.
But aside from that, it’s quite a different project. The plot of The One I Love is that a marriage therapist sends a struggling couple away to a private retreat as part of their process of sorting out their differences. Ethan has been unfaithful to Sophie, and the two are finding it difficult to come to terms with how to move on. So they go to this beautiful home that has a little guest cottage in the back yard. But while they are there they discover something really strange…
(this is of course where you should stop reading if you don’t want the initial twist of the movie spoiled for you)
In the cottage live duplicates of themselves. Seemingly perfect, happy duplicates, which they can only interact with one at a time (eg. real Sophie with duplicate Ethan, and real Ethan with duplicate Sophie). Ethan wants nothing to do with it but Sophie thinks it’s an opportunity to explore another facet of their relationship in an attempt to grow as a couple – a strange form of marriage therapy. And so they start alternating visits to their doppelgangers. This of course turns out to be a fairly bad idea from a relationship standpoint, especially as Sophie starts to fall in love with this cooler, nicer, more emotionally open version of her husband.
It’s a strange little character drama in which things become progressively more challenging for the couple, especially when Ethan finally can’t it anymore and Sophie admits she’s not planning on leaving, resulting in a fight that’s only interrupted when they find their duplicates waiting for them in the real house, apparently intent on having dinner and a night of games together. At this point, it’s more and more obvious how broken a person Sophie really is. Of course, Ethan is the one that cheated, but Sophie can’t seem to look beyond the fact that no matter how strange their situation is, no matter how harsh and cruel the fake Ethan is to her husband, he just makes her feel better. And because of that, nearly everything he does gets a “pass” from her.
Ethan then finds himself trapped in the cottage himself after he realizes that the whole situation is a bizarre Twilight Zone-like plot in which each couple sent to the property for the weekend are driven apart by the current inhabitants, who then leave and take their place in life. The problem now is that Fake Ethan has fallen genuinely in love with Real Sophie, and intends to leave with her, ditching Fake Sophie in the process. The results in Fake Sophie helping Real Ethan, and a genuine moment of humility and openness from him toward his wife. And that leads to the revelation that Fake Ethan is really a villainous and cowardly jerk, which results in him apparently getting killed when he tries to run out by himself. But events have conspired to make the two Sophie’s dressed identically at that point (something only possible if the real Sophie had brought identical shirts, pairs of pants, and shoes with her on this weekend), so at the end we have a bit of a forced ambiguous ending, as Ethan and one of the Sophie’s leaves, while the other stays behind to mourn Fake, Dead, Selfish Jerk Ethan.
Who was more likely to do that? The Fake Sophie who had claimed to still be in love with him, or the Real Sophie who had clearly fallen in love with the idea that he had represented? Both had seen Fake Ethan exposed for what he was, and both had refused to run out with him a moment earlier. But both might have had reason to mourn him, and both could have had cause to smile confidently at Real Ethan and leave with him. I don’t know if either would have stayed lingering over his fallen body for all the time it took the others to get in their car and drive away (and indeed, moved his body out of the road for the convenience of the drivers).
(Actually, in watching it, it’s not even clear to me that Fake Ethan had actually died rather than getting knocked out, but the internet viewing public seems to agree that he was dead, which makes the resulting fate of whoever stayed behind even more unsettling).
The final scene most obviously suggests that it was the Fake Sophie who got out, but the internet is full of people who see it the other way as well. To me, the preferred ending is that it was the Real Sophie who left, as that is more emotionally satisfying and also a bit more believable to me in light of the previous scenes – although maybe that’s just me wanting a neater resolution, where people really work out their issues. Certainly up until that point, Sophie had especially seemed unable to face the situation with any honesty, quickly recognizing all of Ethan’s faults without acknowledging any of her own. And upon my first viewing of those last few minutes, I definitely read the action as communicating the darker alternative. However, on re-watching it, I can also see the argument for the other possibility; so yes, it’s ambiguous.
The movies really rides on its performances, and both Mark Duplass (who also starred in the quirky Safety Not Guaranteed) and Elizabeth Moss and Ethan and Sophie are really strong and believable – normal people living with real weaknesses and brokenness. The scene with all four of them together highlights how clearly they are able to delineate between their alternate versions. Ted Danson also shows up as the only other significant character – the odd therapist whose motivations and ability to send people on these nightmarish retreats is never explained. Apparently, he is related to director Charlie McDowell, who does quite a good job here. The film is rated R (equivalent of MA in Australia) for some sexual content that was relatively easy for me to avoid (my usual preference) and some swearing.
The only disappointment for me was the last few moments with the enforced confusion. I found that a bit of a let down, as the movie up until that point had been a fairly straightforward drama, albeit a bit of a trippy one. It had, I felt, earned its emotional resonance, and did not need to rely on cheap tricks and twists to make it interesting.