A fever dream of marital discontent, Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love tackles a failing marriage with sci-fi panache. Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) have a communication problem. They’re in therapy, working through the strain of drifting apart and Ethan’s infidelity. They are out of synch, literally and emotionally, and their therapist recommends they head to a weekend retreat in a cabin, promising they will return “renewed.” The couple arrives at the cabin, prepared to bond and renew, but a bizarre secret awaits them.
The story elements of The One I Love are heavily plotted: there is a clear trajectory of movement and evolution of the story. But, the space that fills those spaces relies very much on the actors’ improvisation, as nearly all the dialogue was shaped on the set. Films so rarely have that lived-in feel, the natural reactiveness of not expecting what the other person in the scene will see. In dealing with relationships onscreen, even when they’re on the rocks, this loosely improvised style lends authenticity when pulled off correctly. Even the best relationships are messy and reactive — often times, the person you choose to spend the rest of your life with can be the person you choose as much as your partner in play.
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Play, by its very nature, is unpredictable and explorative. As children, it’s how we forge our identity and learn how to interact with the world that surrounds us. In many ways, our games are how we test for the roles that we will play for the rest of our lives. Without revealing key elements of The One I Love (I’m not normally spoiler adverse — let alone for a film that was released a few years ago — but I am making an exception here), the element of play-acting and psychological games takes center stage. This idea of performance in life questions any sense of self and (in conjunction) the idea of relationships. The characters play games, they play with toys — these tangents feel directionless but thematically resonate as a wandering need to reaffirm identity.
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One of the biggest fears of being in a long-term relationship is the fear that you don’t really know the person whom you’re with. If you don’t know yourself, how are you expected to know or understand someone else? The power of films like Invasion of The Body Snatchers lies in that fear presented with an alien situation, you might not be able to recognize if you’re loved one is real or a carbon copy. While this scenario seems unlikely as something you will ever have to deal with, through time or circumstances the person you share your bed or your life with can suddenly become a stranger to you. Falling into a habit and natural drifting apart means you lose touch with the curiosity and engagement with your significant other. You settle into the idea of who they are and lose interest. All of sudden, you snap back into awareness, and you’re in bed with a stranger.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.