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.