Friday, January 23, 2015

The One I Love

I wrote some half dozen full-length film reviews in 2014, and looking back, almost every one of them revolves around the theme of how difficult it is to find genuinely intelligent, thoughtful SF movies.  "Intelligent," in this context, means a willingness to engage with the SFnal tropes that drive a story, to explore their implications on the film's characters or even its world, instead of plumping for the familiar story beats of a superhero movie or a family drama without asking what the existence of the SFnal does to change them.  As I get to catching up with the 2014 culture that I wanted to get to (and in preparation for Hugo nominating, open until March 10th), I've been exploring the year's smaller-budget genre efforts, and finding a much greater willingness to explore the limits of the genre than in the studio fare.

The first of these forays, The One I Love, is not precisely the elusive beast I've been looking for.  Rather, it takes a fantastic element and grafts it onto a mumblecore relationship drama, the sort of movie that, as Noel Murray wrote just yesterday in a wonderfully peeved essay at the AV Club, revolves around the non-problems of privileged white people (the film is the debut feature effort of director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader, but it was produced by the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, two of the most dominant figures of this stream of filmmaking).  What makes the film work is the deftness with which it achieves that graft, and how it uses it to both elicit comedy and change the contours of the over-familiar story it's telling.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are a young couple whose marriage is on the rocks.  As Sophie explains to their therapist (Ted Danson), she feels as if their life used to be full of love and happiness, but that now they have to work to achieve just a fraction of what used to come so easily.  Shortly afterwards, it's revealed that the reason for this rupture is that Ethan was unfaithful, and that Sophie, though outwardly willing to work on the marriage, has been retreating from him.  Within the film's first scene, it establishes personalities for both its main characters--he's selfish and immature, she's passive and judgmental--that are so familiar as to be stock types, especially within the sub-genre suggested by the film's naturalistic, mumbly dialogue and its delivery.  The brilliance of The One I Love is in taking this over-familiar premise and adding a genre twist to it, when Sophie and Ethan's therapist suggests that they go on a weekend retreat to a beautiful house in Southern California.  "I've sent lots of couples there," he says, "and they all came back... renewed."

Though the audience is primed to expect something strange, Ethan and Sophie treat their trip as just another weekend getaway, cooing over the beauty of the house and the grounds with an over-obvious determination that seems designed to conceal their doubts about the endeavor.  On their first night there, however, the supernatural rears its head.  Sophie, investigating the guest house on the estate, meets Ethan there and has a moment of connection, getting drunk and having sex for the first time in months.  When she returns to the main house, however, she finds Ethan there, acting as if he has no memory of their encounter.  After a fight, Ethan retreats to the guest house himself, and when he wakes up in the morning, a sunny Sophie is making him breakfast--which makes it a surprise when he finds her in the main house with no memory of doing so.  The couple realize that whichever one of them enters the guest house will meet an alternate version of the other there.  Though Ethan is freaked out and wants to leave, Sophie is intrigued, suggesting that they "explore" what they've discovered.

I've been calling The One I Love a science fiction film, but it should be noted that on paper, its opening beats seem far more reminiscent of a horror movie.  Many horror stories begin with a family that has been broken--by infidelity, death, or financial troubles--traveling to a home that represents a new hope for the future but whose secrets actually tear it apart, either to come back stronger or to reveal that the rifts within it were irreparable.  But though The One I Love hews closely to the beats of a horror story, all the way to its end, that genre never felt like the right fit for it.  The film's comedic tone (and its sunny look, with director McDowell taking full advantage of the lush Ojai scenery and the beautiful estate on which it's set, shooting the film, at points, almost like a tourist commercial) defuses the scariness of its premise even as its events veer farther and farther from normalcy.  The very fact that Sophie's suggestion to go back to the house seems reasonable--and perhaps even therapeutic--suggests that science fiction is what you get when you replace the danger and menace of a horror story with humor and a gloss of rationality.

Though Sophie and Ethan lay down ground rules that give them each equal access to the guest house (and reinforce the film's treatment of the numinous as a form of therapy--the couple agrees, for example, that the guest house is a safe space and that neither one is allowed to spy on the other), their enthusiasm for it is quickly shown to be unequal--as are the versions of each other they find there.  Sophie's "Ethan" is a better version of her husband, funny, interesting, and most importantly, emotionally open.  He's able to apologize for his infidelity and thank her for sticking by him in a way that the defensive, self-absorbed Ethan has clearly never done.  "Sophie," meanwhile, is a nondescript male fantasy, swanning around in slinky negligee and pretty dresses and cooking forbidden bacon for breakfast.  To his credit, Ethan doesn't seem interested in spending time with her, insisting to Sophie that "there is no version of you that I'd rather be with."  But this is might be because he senses that just under the surface of "Sophie"'s Stepfordian perfection lies an icy disdain for the kind of man who might desire it, which takes very little prodding to reveal itself (it shouldn't come as a shock, at this stage, that Moss is an exceptional actress, but she's fantastic at conveying the layers of both Sophies--the anxiety that underpins the real Sophie's breeziness and good humor, and the bitchiness that occasionally erupts from under "Sophie"'s placid surface).  As the weekend draws on, Sophie becomes more entangled with "Ethan" while Ethan goes to ever-greater and more unethical extremes (unsurprisingly, the couple's ground rules are quickly abandoned) to try to save a marriage that may be beyond repair.

The film's final act turns the screw even further, with both couples sharing space, pretending to have a normal, "fun" evening together even as the absurdity of the situation and the tensions between them rise to a fevered pitch.  (This isn't quite an Orphan Black level of complexity, but there are several scenes in which Moss and Duplass play against themselves and at least one that has all four characters on screen at once, all of which are accomplished with a smoothness that is impressive from a newbie director working with what can't have been a huge budget.)  When Lader's script shows its hand and reveals the true purpose of the retreat and just how Ethan and Sophie are going to be "renewed" by it, it's almost a relief to be able to abandon the couples' pretense of normalcy and congeniality, and if the film can't quite make a coherent SFnal concept out of its mysterious premise, it certainly comes close.

In the end, The One I Love does turn out to be a horror story, of a sort.  None of its four characters end up getting what they want, and its happy ending only lightly conceals a rather nasty judgment on all of the couples that are formed and reformed within its story.  It's not an ending that I can imagine getting from a mimetic mumblecore film, a genre that in my (admittedly not huge) experience tends to avoid strong negative emotions.  In the film's climax, Ethan makes the requisite big romantic speech to Sophie, telling her that while he may not be as good a partner as "Ethan," he is real and he believes in their relationship.  The fantastic premise of the film leaves space for a version of this story in which this kind of grand gesture doesn't work--and in a way whose consequences are far stranger and more tragic than a simple divorce.  If I've been calling The One I Love a science fiction film despite its horror story shape, it is because of this--because it uses the meeting of the fantastic and the mundane to add a new twist to a familiar story, to suggest a new consequence to the shopworn circumstances of its characters.


Mark said...

Despite its genre-blurriness, I'll be nominating this for a Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation Long Form. Along similar lines, but more clearly SF would be Coherence (which I'm really hoping gets a nom as well). I'm not sure though, as I feel like the Hugos tend to go for super popular, bigger budget stuff (i.e. Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, Mockingjay pt 1, etc...) Was very disappointed that Upstream Color didn't even come close to being nominated last year, but I feel like both The One I Love and Coherence are more accessible than Upstream Color...

Anonymous said...

Why do you say that the movie "revolves around the non-problems of privileged white people"? Have persons of colour never been in a relationship that's turned frosty because of infidelity? Have black people never tried to resuscitate a failing relationship by going away for the weekend?

Abigail Nussbaum said...


It's funny you should mention Coherence, since I was watching it just last night. I agree that it's a worthwhile film (I'll probably write about it later this week), though I think it has some problems that The One I Love avoids.

I wouldn't hold out much hope for either film making it onto this year's Hugo ballot (though I'm planning to nominate both). This year had a lot of high-profile genre films that seem to have resonated with genre fans. I expect the BDP:LF category to include at least Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Lego Movie. I wouldn't be surprised if Snowpiercer and Monckingjay 1 made it on as well (though the latter is more of a stretch given that a lot of fandom seems to have been disappointed by its being half a story). That doesn't leave much room for smaller fare.


Have black people never tried to resuscitate a failing relationship by going away for the weekend?

I'm sure they have, and yet somehow, no one ever seems to make a movie about that. Much less a well-funded, expertly shot, critically acclaimed movie starring well-regarded actors.

I don't think I'm saying anything groundbreaking when I point out that mumblecore is an extremely white genre, even by the overall standards of American filmmaking. Saying that it revolves around "privileged white people" feels like a pretty accurate description.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this film, as I tend to enjoy small indie sf films (like Moon & Source Code) & sf that doesn't look like it from the outside; in a way this film reminds me of that odd & arbitrary breed of sf/f books that wind up shelved in "mainstream fiction." But while I loved it while watching it, the ending felt unsatsifying, and I am still parsing why.

I completely understand why the film doesn't explain the mechanisms of its sf elements--it's very much not the point, and I usually care much less about such mechanisms than their emotional effects . But at the risk of being entirely earthbound, I was left wanting to better understand where "Sophie" & "Ethan" came from in order to understand what happened at the end and what different characters had at stake. (Seriously, who are they? Aliens? Therapeutic constructs? Some transmutation of previous couples who have to work together to pull the same cosmological con on the next couple as they were victims of?)

I also felt like this film had a great deal to say about gender in relationships, but did not entirely succeed. So much of what warps the original relationship are gendered dynamics--Ethan's male entitlement, Sophie's highly feminized reactions of sublimated anger--and that only intensifies when we me the doppelgängers.

But as it quickly becomes apparent that "Ethan"--or Sophie's fantasy version of Ethan--is a much more attractive reality than "Sophie"--or Ethan's fantasy of Sophie, I was left wondering what this means within the context of the plot. That Sophie is more vulnerable to manipulation because she wants emotional intimacy? That Ethan doesn't have the skills to have a real relationship, but his dudebro tendency to ignore what he doesn't want to face will ultimately pay off in a facsimile of one? That it doesn't matter how much a film explores gender dynamics as long as its makers remain locked in a man's point-of-view? I'm still pondering.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think the conclusion the film wants us to reach is that "Ethan" and "Sophie" are a previous couple who have been transformed into facsimiles of the current one, and can only leave by trapping the real Ethan and Sophie as they were. But the film doesn't really go into the implications of that - how deep does that transformation run? Do "Ethan" and "Sophie" remember who they used to be or do they have Ethan and Sophie's memories? Is leaving the house really worth becoming different people? Is Sophie in for the same fate, and did she realize that when she chose to stay with "Ethan"? That's obviously because the film's focus is on the real couple, with the duplicates there mainly to reflect on them, but it's a flaw if you come to the film as a work of genre.

It's also a question that affects how you read the duplicates' behavior towards the originals in the film's early stages. If you assume that they are real people desperately trying to leave, and that the only way to do so is to break Ethan and Sophie up, then the fact that they present allegedly perfect fantasies, and that those fantasies are successful to varying degrees, makes more sense. The fact that "Sophie" is a less attractive fantasy than "Ethan" has more to do with the fact that she's misjudged him - he may not be able to give Sophie the emotional openness she needs, but he isn't looking for a meek little wife either.

I do agree that the film's final statement is hard to parse. Ethan seems to get a happier ending than he deserves - and one that, for most of the film, is clearly not what he wants but which he accepts with a shrug in its closing moments. Meanwhile, Sophie's decision to stay with "Ethan" isn't entirely earned - especially as she's just realized that his love for her isn't as powerful as his desire the leave the house.

Anonymous said...

Having thought a lot about it, I actually have an idea of what the final statement of the movie is meant to be, though if I am right it's true that we're expected to see the characters more as embodiments of certain character traits than as realistic characters per se. Here's how it looks to me:

Sophie genuinely believes that she deserves a perfect husband (here shown as a man who is lively, interesting and emotionally available, with a personality that is distinct and stimulating but never to the point where it interferes with her own wants and needs) and that such a husband could reasonably exist, and therefore alt-Ethan is a dream come true for her.

Ethan, on the other hand, knows that not only does he not deserve a perfect wife (here shown as your basic Stepford zombie), but such a creature is even hard to imagine in reality - why would someone dedicate herself to serving him but asking nothing in return? All he even seems to dare to dream of is, instead, for Sophie to just accept him as the miserable, charmless sadsack he is - not even exactly forgive him for his infidelity, but to just stay with him in spite of it so that he can at least have the vague outline of a good life even if it has no substance to it. (the first scene has him, not begging for forgiveness, but asking if they can't just stop talking about it already). Therefore, alt-Sophie's smiling indulgence does nothing but freak him out and he keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In the end, they both get what they want. Sophie gets her dream lover, and has to give up the entirety of the real world for him. Ethan gets a wife who won't leave him and won't hassle him about being better than he is, and has to spend the rest of his life living an emotionally empty lie. And the most (intentionally, I think) disturbing part is that they both seem to be content with that arrangement.

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