'The One I Love' is Full of Delightful, Introspective Enigmas

Directed by: Charlie McDowell; Runtime: 91 minutes
Grade: A-

Preserving the mysteries at the heart of The One I Love while also discussing what makes it such a worthwhile piece of filmmaking can be a tricky balancing act. After all, even revealing the fact that the film slips through the threshold into supernatural territory could be considered a spoiler of what's to come, yet it's the kind of thing that's crucial to knowing what you're getting into with the relationship adventure of Ethan and Sophie. This isn't just another spin on the likes of The Lake House or The Time Traveler's Wife, though: by bringing eerie metaphysical experiences into the process of repairing a marriage on the brink of collapse, director Charlie McDowell explores the tolerance, the heartbreak, the guilt and the desire over an idealized version of one's partner within a fantastical puzzle box. Whimsy is, instead, used as a source of deeper conflict through its thoughts and challenges towards the fabric of what comprises a relationship, and that's all established before things get truly strange in the couple's wild reconciliatory vacation.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are a fairly typical case when it comes to couples counseling: they're disconnected from one another and angry about past transgressions, yet still expressing love for each other in ways that don't seem like a lost cause with some work. After reaching an stalemate in their treatment, however, their therapist (Ted Danson) suggests an alternate, somewhat conventional method for bringing them closer together, whipping out a pamphlet for an idyllic vacation spot. Desperate, they hop in their car and arrive at the cottage, the kind of place custom-made for a relaxing getaway, complete with wide grounds to hike and a close-by guest house (perhaps for space apart during arguments). Shortly after an evening where things seem like they might be on the road to recovery for Ethan and Sophie, they soon discover that the cottage's grounds aren't what they seem, especially the guest house that adapts to the needs of whoever's alone in there.

From the initial scene of Ethan and Sophie attempting to rekindle things while splashing around a swimming pool, The One I Love capably sets up the waning relationship between their personalities, emphasizing both lightheartedness and gloomy uncertainty about where they're headed. Justin Lader's script fleshes out their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms in a very short time through candid therapy exchanges and lumbering attempts at bonding, which is necessary given the story's reliance on observing what makes each of them distinct and appealing to the other. There's a harmony between Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass that taps into the earnestness of a worthwhile marriage gone sour, without the facade of melodramatic proclamations about their desires and needs. By drawing those watching into their headspace, the frustration and the longing for what they once had, the film perceptively showcases the differences in how each needs to change if they're to salvage their marriage.

Then, complimented by an off-kilter, creepy score from Enemy and Martha Marcy May Marlenecomposers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, The One I Love settles into its indie-budget creation of an enigmatic scenario, smartly using the cottage's grounds to establish the boundaries of the fantastical. Despite only featuring two characters and one enclosed setting for the overwhelming majority of the film, director McDowell creates a sprawling uncanny essence throughout the houses' halls with clever rules and a potent purpose, allowing the characters' skepticism and curiosity to respond to the guest house's mysterious effects. There's nothing ostentatious about how The One I Love casts its spells: it's all about smart editing and intimate cinematography as the point of view follows Ethan and Sophie's turns in the house, along with attention paid to intuitive details about how each of them embraces what's going on. Expecting answers to every matter wouldn't be wise, though; the film ends up raising two questions for each one it answers, but in a way that enriches the restrained sci-fi instead of handicapping it.

Through the guest house's enchantments, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss manifest into alternate versions of Ethan and Sophie -- appealing, idealized, yet only slightly-tweaked versions -- which opens a door in The One I Love for musings about the nuances of identity, repairing relationships and longing for the past. It's a disquieting joy to observe the differences in how Sophie warms to a more attentive and charismatic version of Ethan, while juxtaposed with Ethan's unease over a seemingly flawless version of Sophie. Here, however, is where preservation of the plot's secrets overrides the capability to dig into the richness of what transpires, how the manifestations impact Ethan and Sophie's reconciliation and what, precisely, ends up really going on in the couple's private time. Jealousy and suspicion take the tone in directions that break free from rom-com conventions, coupled with incredibly bizarre situations of duplicity that guide the film into an emotional maze, deftly fleshed out by the quirk and charisma of both Duplass and Moss.

Later on, though, The One I Love slowly refocuses its eeriness, allowing a gloomy tempo to shape the many other-worldly aspects surrounding the vacation spot into more direct psychological and supernatural suspense. The absence of clarity in certain areas gets superseded by Charlie McDowell's astute concentration on the poignancy of Ethan and Sophie's responses to their developing situation, never losing its equilibrium between the real and surreal while everything slips out of control. All the while, director McDowell's debut feature also sustains a poignant voice concerning the crossed wires and unspoken needs of relationships, funneling into the earned, if slightly contrived, ambiguity that brings the film's themes together into a witty and complex articulation. Compatibility, rediscovering happiness, and desiring ideals over individuality inform The One I Love's higher-concept angle, which, even upon the closest of inspections, manages to keep a few secrets locked up in the guest house. And it's a more thought-provoking film for it, too.

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