Directed by Charlie McDowell
The One I Love is a movie I loved when I first saw it a couple years ago. It’s a small, seemingly lean story about love, science-fiction, ego and the projection of that ego onto other people. It’s a story about a couple trying to avoid falling completely out of love, and to point out how far they’ve fallen, they run into what you might call parallel versions of their spouses who represent each person’s ideal version of the other. In these moments we can see so clearly what Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) hope to see in the other and how wildly different those ‘characters’ are than the real Ethan and Sophie.
In a session with a couples’ counselor (played by Ted Danson), we see just how far apart Ethan and Sophie are. They start by recounting an attempt to relive some of the joy of when they first met, and we see how little life was left in that attempt. The efforts there, we understand, but the fire just isn’t. Sophie then brings up something Ethan did to betray her trust, and though we’re not told explicitly what it is, we can safely assume that he slept with another woman. This betrayal is like a rock lodged in someone’s shoe. They’re trying to work past it, but Sophie isn’t completely able to look around it, and Ethan can’t understand why she would take him back if she’s only going to keep bringing it up.
These are battered people who want the same thing, but the different ways they want to go about it is what holds them back. It’s why, when presented with the sci-fi premise of the film, they’re not stuck in this new world, but they choose to go back instead. It’s a delightful character moment that highlights both their shared interest in the magic guest house as well as their different reasons for wanting to go back.
So the plot of the movie is this: Ethan and Sophie are sent to a nice Napa Valley-esque getaway. It’s a beautiful spot with a house and a guest house. That first night they start to feel some of the magic they once had, but then each of them wanders separately over to the guest house where they encounter a different version of the other. So Sophie goes first, and she sees Ethan, only it’s not our Ethan. “Our” Ethan wears glasses, and his hair is neatly combed in the middle aged dad kind of way. But “other” Ethan (I’ll call him Ethan 2) wears no glasses, and his hair is messy in a boyish way. Sophie sleeps with Ethan 2, believing him to be Ethan 1.
Ethan 2 suggests they stay the night in the guest house, and soon we will learn that the “others” can’t leave this guest house. It’s a force field of sorts, and so his attempt to keep her there is something like a lure. When Sophie goes back to the main house to get a blanket, she finds Ethan 1 asleep on the couch. They have a brief fight centered around each of them not understanding why the other has a different story of what they just did together.
Confused, Ethan goes to the guest house the next morning where he encounters Sophie 2. This Sophie is like the model of a 1950s era housewife. She smiles, her hair pinned up, while she makes him breakfast, bacon and eggs, which Ethan notes that the real Sophie never would.
When Ethan and Sophie accept what’s happening here, even if it is a Twilight Zone kind of thing, they get the hell out of there, packing their bags and talking about what happened at a diner. This is my favorite part of the movie. You might expect them to be stuck at this house, forced to confront these other versions of themselves, but instead they choose to stay, and this decision is more impactful as it highlights something in their character that compels them to figure out what’s going on. Ethan, at first, is more reluctant to return, but when Sophie makes it clear that she’ll never be able to forget what just happened (and truly, how many of us could look past the fact that you have a clone out in the world?), Ethan gives in to her desire to go back, a subtle attempt to appease her. It seemed clear to me that he would love to get away, but this is an effort to bridge the gap between them. Again, knowing that he cheated on her, we understand that he is always trying to make up for it, so for most of the film Sophie has the advantage.
Once they go back, though, we see their different philosophies at play. Sophie simply enjoys being around Ethan 2, but Ethan wants to investigate Sophie 2. Is she a robot or alien? These are the things he wonders while Sophie just enjoys her new companion. As it becomes clear that Sophie is falling in love with Ethan 2, Ethan lashes out at Sophie 2, telling her she’s not real. In a chilling moment, Sophie 2’s peppy demeanor slowly falls, and her expression is haunting. You don’t know if it’s sinister (after all, what is going on?) or if she’s realizing something. Then she tells him that their marriage began suffering long ago, and she reveals that she’s more than just a mirage, she might be real.
So this is a science-fiction movie, and you don wonder what exactly is going on, but the best parts of the movie are all about the evolving relationships between Ethan and Sophie and their counterparts. The movie begins to suffer when, in act 3, the other Ethan and Sophie suddenly leave the guest house and sit down with the real couple to hash things out. It bothered me that they were able to leave because there was no clear indication for how they could leave. And maybe that’s me wanting to know the answers that the movie has no intention to give out, but the movie does give us some of the answers.
So in act 3 the movie found itself stuck in the middle. It could choose to dive into the sci-fi element, or it could ignore it completely and focus only on how the characters deal with what’s going on. Instead the movie tries to do both. The other Ethan and Sophie pivot very quickly, and their new behavior isn’t really believable. Ethan 2 becomes much more territorial, apparently having fallen in love with Sophie, and Sophie 2 delivers a frightening monologue to Sophie 1. It’s a very well-executed scene, but within the film Sophie 2’s sudden turn into a more evil character is out of the blue. Later she will borrow clothes from Sophie 1 before a hike like they are best friends, as if the movie and Sophie 1 completely forgot this bone-chilling moment.
There is a lot going on in act 3, and the movie really asks you to suspend your disbelief, not about the premie of the movie, but about the characters’ decisions. Ethan becomes trapped in a box, literally in the guest house, and his desperation is understandable, but Sophie seems blind to the charms (which we can see right through) of Ethan 2, and Sophie 2 has no clear goal while Ethan 2 does, suggesting that she’s capable of having her own desires.
It’s not until Sophie 2 visits Ethan and tries to explain that they need to stop Ethan 2 because Ethan 2 is falling in love with Sophie 1 which “isn’t supposed to happen.” Before this point we got a scene in which Ethan discovers a recording studio with a computer that has folders named after various couples, including one titled “Ethan & Sophie.” He opens it and hears the audio of two strangers becoming Ethan and Sophie. The idea seems to be that the “other” Ethan and Sophie are two other people from a previously struggling relationship who visited the same couples’ counselor and have been trapped in the guest house.
What’s irritating is that the story gives you just enough information to make you want to know more. It teases us with this information, but it also doesn’t make much sense. Why would Ethan have such an easy time finding this computer (which isn’t password-protected) unless he was supposed to find it? Was he supposed to find it?
But again, this movie should be about the evolving relationship between Ethan and Sophie and what their encounters with Ethan 2 and Sophie 2 tell us about their own relationship. I liked it better when Ethan 2 and Sophie 2 didn’t have their own goals. They were just mirrors to what the other person wanted from their spouse, but when those mirrors come to life and become much more conventional movie antagonists, the movie seemed to fall flat.
It’s still an exciting story with an intriguing finale, but the story feels very inconsistent. We get the almost cliche moment of one character having to pick between two doppelgangars, and Ethan picks wrong, which you expect to happen. A similar moment took place in Alien: Covenant, and probably every other doppelgangar movie.
I’m still a little torn, because I really enjoyed this movie, but the third act feels like an entirely different story than the first two. The dramatic question of the first two acts, about whether their marriage will survive, becomes much more literal in the third act in terms of ‘will they actually survive?’ But the focus leans more heavily on Ethan, mainly since he’s given more agency in the final act. Instead of the story being about their marriage, it’s all about Ethan’s attempts to not disappear. And there’s something symbolic there. Maybe his fears of being left behind at the guest house are more literal manifestations of his insecurity which caused him to cheat on Sophie sometime in their backstory.
Either way, the story mostly ignores Sophie in the final act and makes its characters act out of character in order to orchestrate the moment where Ethan has to pick between two identical Sophies, wearing the same exact outfit. First, why is Sophie so nice to Sophie 2 after Sophie 2 delivered her a Godfather level threat the night before? Second, why does Sophie have the same exact outfit to donate to Sophie 2 for her to wear, and third, Sophie 2 tells Ethan that her goal is to get Ethan 2 back. I’m not entirely sure of their relationship, but Sophie 2 explains that she’s scared that Ethan 2 is falling in love with Sophie 1. But at the end, Sophie 2’s goal is clearly to escape with Ethan 1. And while what she said to Ethan 1 about the other two may very well be a lie, something to manipulate him into helping her escape, why was she even able to escape through the force field that knocked Ethan 2 unconscious?
These questions shouldn’t matter since the story should only be about Ethan and Sophie. In the end he picks the wrong Sophie, and he realizes it sometime later in a chilling moment as he has to live with this the rest of his life. I really liked the ending, but the movie gives us too much information about the sci-fi element of the story to make the amount of refrain from giving us more information very frustrating.
Still, it’s throughly enjoyable, and the chemistry between the happy versions of Ethan and Sophie and engaging to watch. I very much bought their relationship which was necessary for any of the movie to work. Even though it’s a sci-fi movie, it hinges on the plausibility of the two leads’ romance, shown through the small moments like when they play with nesting dolls or play tic tac toe or confess their deepest regrets to each other (usually in moments involving one of the “others”).