If 2013 saw a reimagining of the toxicity of the American Dream (Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, At Any Price, The Wolf of Wall Street, etc), then 2014 may as well be called the year of the doppelgänger. Films like Richard Ayoade’s The Double, Jenée LaMarque’s The Pretty One, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love all contend concerns of social, physical, familial, and cosmic gravity. The zeitgeist of films serve as a reminder of existential concerns regarding the ebb and flow of identity: are we too bound by physical limitations to change who we are fundamentally? Is it a matter of biology, as in the case of The Pretty One? In Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, the filmmaker sets his existential inquires uniquely within the confines of a struggling relationship.
Ethan and Sophie (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) are first seen with their therapist discussing their struggling marriage. They share a story about attempting to rekindle their romance by recreating the moment they met: they sneak into a neighbor’s pool after a party only to be run off the property. The second time around, they leap into the pool and realize no one is home to shoo them away. Happiness is something they attempt to recreate and they’re not doing a very good job of it. Their therapist suggests they head to a reclusive retreat that’s helped many of his other patients. Accepting the offer, the two stumble upon a guest house on the property that presents its own set of unique, Twilight Zone-esque circumstances.
The film’s central conceit suggests concerns over what we want in a relationship and the measures we take in order to fix them. In the case of Ethan and Sophie, their relationship is one ingrained in a memory of one another. The doppelgänger they each encounter highlight the better qualities of each. What if Ethan weren’t so cynical and exercised a bit more? What if Sophie weren’t so critical of Ethan’s demeanor or eating habits? While the film never makes any expressed remarks to Ira Levin’s novella The Stepford Wives, The One I Love very much concerns itself with the notion of replacement in relationships. As the picture develops, Sophie opens up to the more emotionally available version of Ethan - to the point that she questions who she wants to be with. It’s a remarkable development that is realized by two great performances. Duplass and Moss compose the vast majority of the picture and their performances, both as their initial characters and their doppelgänger selves have an expressed nuance that extends beyond superficial physical transformations.
Beyond that, the film’s chief contribution comes from the surprisingly effective scripting. There were ample moments where the film offers explanations and suggestions to the reality of the situation that could have threatened the harmonious balance the picture achieved. But the trajectory the film takes is equal parts risky and exciting as they are carefully thought-out and familiar. Every development may answer a specific question the audience has but subsequently breeds a series of new questions that makes this head-trip of a film increasingly enjoyable.
The One I Love is Charlie McDowell’s debut feature and though it doesn’t offer much in the way of directorial identity, it’s an immaculate relationship study as it is an exercise in working in a claustrophobic setting. While the subject matter differs, McDowell’s film bares a similar sense of genre appreciation as something like Zal Batmanglij’s The Sound of My Voice. Assured and endlessly inquisitive, it’s one of the most surprising films of the 2014.