Before Charlie McDowell’s fantastical debut feature The One I Love descends completely down the rabbit hole, it begins with a more everyday kind of dream. Ethan (Mark Duplass), trying to rekindle the romance in his failing marriage to Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), hopes that one magic night might do the trick. To celebrate their anniversary, he gets Sophie to re-create the night the two met, when they sneaked into a stranger’s backyard to swim in their pool, only to be caught by the homeowner.
Of course, the fanciful re-creation backfires when the owner never appears, despite Ethan’s calling out to him after diving in. Evidently there’s no panacea for his and Sophie’s problems — lingering distrust after some infidelity, Sophie’s sense that “happiness is now something we need to re-create” — though that doesn’t stop their therapist (Ted Danson) from suggesting his own cure-all: a weekend getaway to an idyllic countryside estate.
Initially, the retreat appears to work wonders. On the first night, the two make dinner, they get high, and eventually, as they explore the nearby guesthouse, they seem to rediscover a playfulness in their relationship. They even have sex. It’s all quite lovely until Sophie, returning to the main house, discovers Ethan asleep on the couch. He remembers nothing beyond dinner and smoking up.
The next morning, after spending the rest of the night alone in the guesthouse, Ethan wakes up to Sophie, who has seemingly forgotten about the previous night’s disagreement, making breakfast. But Ethan notices that something’s off with the food she’s preparing: “You hate it when I eat bacon,” he says suspiciously.
(In interviews about the movie, Moss and Duplass have been fairly adamant about not spoiling the plot much further than this. But frankly, I don’t think the movie can be ruined by disclosing a plot twist that occurs 20 minutes in. It’s more interesting than that. Still, if you want the full surprise, you’ve been warned.)
Instead of discovering a cure to their marriage woes, Sophie and Ethan discover a guesthouse that seemingly contains an alternate dimension in which their doppelgangers reside. Considering how outrageous the twist sounds now that I write it, it’s particularly impressive how naturally the film introduces it.
McDowell and writer Justin Lader don’t resort to shock tactics by having, say, the two Ethans come face to face suddenly. The reveal is gradual and infused with comedy. While still under the impression that he’s talking to the real Sophie, Ethan asks doppel-Sophie why she claimed they had sex the night before. Was she so drunk she imagined the whole thing? Was it a failed joke? Sophie’s double tries feebly to explain the moment away: “Honestly, it was just one of those things, you know?”
Like in other doppelganger scenarios — such as, most recently, The Double and Enemy — Ethan and Sophie’s doubles represent idealized versions of themselves, although in this case the fantasy is not self-directed but a product of Sophie and Ethan’s illusions about each other. The guesthouse creates the fantasy partners that both Ethan and Sophie have been missing: the husband that’s playful, romantic and agrees to wear contacts instead of glasses; the wife that’s forgiving, affectionate and lets you eat bacon.
In service of a story about a relationship in distress, the gimmick is fairly on the nose, no doubt. It becomes clear fairly early in the film that what Sophie wants Ethan to be has become increasingly distanced from the reality of the man in front of her — hence the luck of finding a new and improved double! Nevertheless, it’s a gimmick that is also easy to condone for the sake of seeing Moss and Duplass, both superb in their roles, play out a Before Midnight-like scenario.
McDowell and Lader, though, run out of patience or ideas for the broken marriage plotline halfway through, shifting focus almost entirely to the science fiction elements of the plot. That means, more than anything, that the two decide we need a semi-reasonable explanation for the magic of the guesthouse. The resulting twist is hastily expounded, far-fetched, filled with gaping holes in logic, and all the more frustrating for its pointlessness. If you haven’t bought into the premise by the time the film gets to these explanations, it’s hard to imagine that half-cogent reasoning will win you over.
The only thing that saves the movie once it reaches that point is the pleasure of watching Moss and Duplass. In distinguishing the two versions of their characters, both offer simple but precise physical transformations, particularly Moss, who distinguishes guesthouse Sophie by softening her voice and repeatedly tilting her head down to better give coy and flirtatious looks up at Ethan.
The film’s dialogue was largely improvised, as it is usually in films featuring Duplass, and that produces a richness in the actors’ reactions. Simple gestures, from how Sophie responds to Ethan’s kisses to how the two laugh at each other’s jokes, show all we need to know about both the strains and lingering satisfactions in their relationship.
It’s particularly disappointing, then, that McDowell’s eventual emphasis on the film’s sci-fi elements hampers the natural feeling in Ethan and Sophie’s interactions: It forces Ethan into repeated exclamations of how “weird” the guesthouse is as he and Sophie repeat arguments about the true nature of their doubles. But more generally, the direction the plot takes shifts The One I Love away from what was initially charming about its story. It begins by exploring how fantasy intrudes on and affects our perceptions of reality; it ends by trying too hard to convince us that its fantasies could, somehow, be real.