Film Review: The One I Love

Love gets strange in this thought-provoking relationship dramedy, about a mixed-up couple who discover a singular way of reconnecting.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are having marital issues. They’ve drifted apart. They’re no longer in synch. They haven’t been honest with each other. They haven’t been faithful–or rather, he hasn’t. Long story short: The thrill is gone. Of course, they’re far from the first cinematic couple whose marriage has gone stale and static, and are trying to find a way to save it. But each unhappy couple is unhappy in its own way–and this couple’s way is nothing if not unique. The same could be said about this daringly original film, from first-time feature director Charlie McDowell.

The way Ethan and Sophie were and the way they are now is memorably evoked in the opening moments, during a couples counseling session in which they recall the crazy turn their first date took, as they impulsively jumped into a suburban backyard swimming pool, thinking the owner wasn’t home–only to discover, with a rush of adrenaline, that they were wrong. In the following flashback, Ethan and Sophie try to recreate that night, which they’ve clearly clung to as the moment they were born as a couple. Again they plunge into the pool, and resurface full of anticipation. But this time the owner really isn’t home. The thrill is not recaptured. You don’t have to have had a similar experience to relate to the feeling it represents.

That we can thoroughly relate to Ethan and Sophie’s relationship malaise is key to this film’s success. Because these aren’t entirely likeable people. Who is? He’s fussy and prickly; she’s coldish and impatient. The point is that they weren’t always that way with each other. They want to get back to the way they were. They’re willing to work at that. And we’re rooting for them. We’re not expecting the process to be pretty. And we’re certainly not expecting what it ultimately entails.

At the urging of their counselor (Ted Danson), Ethan and Sophie set off on your basic romantic weekend getaway, at a pretty house high in the hills, far away from everything, where they can have some time to get back in touch with each other. From that jumping-off point, a film about a rocky relationship could go any number of ways, from Ingmar Bergman-type dark night of the soul to raunchy rom-com circa 2012. This film does neither. This is where it dares to be original.

It’s hard to describe where it does go without giving away too much of what is meant to be a surprise. Suffice it to say that, in a guesthouse on the property, Ethan and Sophie, at different moments, find another, better version of each other. Suddenly, Sophie is a wife who lovingly cooks breakfast for her husband and visibly glows in a way we haven’t seen before. Just as suddenly, Ethan is painting Sophie’s portrait and accepting her constructive criticism, and cheerfully admitting that no, he’s not much of an artist. The two are making each other laugh. They are happy with each other again. They’re even having great sex, for the first time in too long.

So why does each of them subsequently revert to the way they were when we first met them at the counseling session? Even more worrisome, why do they not seem to even remember the good times they were having on this getaway? Is one or both of them dreaming? Going insane? Is something in the water here? Have they been crossing over to a parallel universe? Are they characters in some screenwriter’s meta-fiction?

The film keeps us guessing long enough to get us utterly intrigued. And when the answers are finally teased out, they prove worth the wait. But what makes this narrative device more than very clever sleight-of-hand is the new set of questions it raises. For starters: Do the new Ethan and Sophie represent the people they used to be? Or are they the people that each wants the other to be?

There is more than that to reflect upon and ponder as Ethan and Sophie navigate a new reality, one that causes them to examine what once made them a happy couple, and why they aren’t anymore–except when one or the other isn’t him or herself. Justin Lader’s script does an impressively delicate balancing act, as its two main characters become, in a very real sense, four.

But all this might have come off as a coolly cerebral exercise without Duplass and Moss nailing every mood swing, crossing a spectrum of mixed emotions, as they sort out what future, if any, this marriage has. Ethan and Sophie’s issues are, of course, issues that most couples deal with as relationships mature but don’t necessarily ripen. The universal chord they strike is what keeps us on their side. And the specifics of their story are what make them bracing to watch–even when it’s just the two of them.

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