Note: This piece contains spoilers, in a sense.
The One I Love is a film very much in the tradition of Groundhog Day, another film that employed bizarre structural techniques in the service of a love story—but it seems, by and large, that this film picks up where that one left off, so that each work shows stages in the development of the human animal in the midst of a relationship. Both films are light enough on their feet that you wouldn’t immediately think they had anything all that serious to impart, but, in fact, they do.
It’s easy, when watching films like these, to pick up on the wrong things. In the case of the older film, we marvel at how strange it is that Murray’s fop lives the same day over and over, assuming that the chief metaphor here is that life itself is repetitive, and that it’s hard to learn from one’s mistakes, and that even the grumpiest malcontent can find true love if given enough chances. The reality is, of course, that the film tells the story of the difficulty of love, and the inevitability of stumbles and false starts on the way towards it. With The One I Love, we marvel at the fact that the couple at the center of the film, having gone to a weekend retreat recommended by their couples counselor, have found themselves sharing a huge mansion with a couple who looks exactly like them, with only slight differences.
Charlie McDowell’s film addresses not the difficulty of love, but the strangeness of the idea of it. Think, for a second: two animals meet each other, become more familiar with each other, and then, if both partners continue to appreciate the other partner, spend the rest of their lives together, or a large part of it. As the animals spend time with each other, they get to know each other better and better. They come to know characteristics they appreciate, and characteristics they do not appreciate. They watch out for each other. They fight. They have moments of great love and affection. They have sex. They have children. This is a fascinating process if you’re studying baby ducks, and it’s also fascinating if you’re watching humans. One thing this film does, as Groundhog Day did, is that it forces us to look at humans in a relationship as animals, and watch how they behave as they grow to know, and un-know, themselves and their partners.
Another important similarity between this film and its predecessor is the seeming blankness of its performances. The actors chosen here do not bear, in their performances here or elsewhere, a distracting heat. Elizabeth Moss has played, throughout her career, characters of great subtlety, but she has rarely played characters with great eccentricity (except perhaps for her early turn in Girl, Interrupted, but that was more of an acting stunt). She is best at a sort of plain, calm openness, which, ironically enough, could allow for a number of different possible results; here, her Sophie wavers between drawing our sympathies and driving us away, her lip quivering at tense moments just enough to make us understand her anger at her spouse. Mark Duplass’s performance is fairly blank, as well—his Ethan wobbles between likability and unlikability throughout the movie, having teetered into adultery, but nevertheless presenting the affect of a nerdy everyman. In the earlier film, the actors seem all similarly cherry picked for their blankness: Bill Murray’s deadpan, Andie MacDowell’s mild-mannered attractiveness, Chris Elliott’s likable goofiness. Even Stephen Tobolowsky, in that film, seems like a well-chosen part of a set piece. What these performances do, by not calling attention to themselves, is draw attention to a central storyline, which in each case is a fairly basic but elegant one.
But in one film we learn what is wrong with us before we fall in love; in the other, we learn what remains wrong with us afterwards. In Groundhog Day, Phil’s faults before he falls in love are many: his egotism, his sarcasm, his misanthropy, his narcissism, his cynicism. We can see him begin to expand, or open up, from the first minute he sees Rita in the newsroom—regardless of whether or not this expansion manifests itself outwardly from the start. Once the mornings begin to repeat themselves, Phil’s lying and bumbling begins a comic metamorphosis, as Rita remains relatively the same. Indeed, the largest change we see in Rita is that she grows to accept Phil’s quirks, or at least becomes more vocal about the traits in him she dislikes. And so, by the end of the film, Phil has repaired himself, in a sense, becoming a person who might, conceivably, be lovable. The film does not suggest he has undergone an Ebenezer-Scrooge-level transformation, but it comes close. He has gotten to this point by making the sorts of mistakes that are all too common in relationships, and learning from them--the moments of forgetfulness, or insensitivity, or clumsiness, that are part of the process by which the complicated animals called humans learn to share a burrow, either real or theoretical. The One I Love could be said to begin 10 years later, after marriage, after the tenderness and rage that come with it. While neither Ethan nor Sophie are comparable with the characters in the earlier film, they don’t need to be. The message remains the same: the phenomenon we are witnessing is one of the strangest things we could see on a screen, even if it is happening all around us, all the time. The characters here talk to each other, and then they talk to duplicates of each other; they have experiences with each other, and then they realize those experiences were with other versions of each other, which they did not realize at the time. Even summarizing it is confusing, as is the experience depicted. As the film continues, we see the two couples finally meeting and having dinner with each other—and agreeing to spend the rest of the weekend hanging out with each other, a happy foursome. Which is almost conceivable, as a social arrangement: one version of Ethan is uptight, the other slightly more relaxed; one version of Sophie seems accepting, the other slightly less content and more brittle. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that we, as we’ve been told before, contain multitudes; while Whitman might have meant that he identified with all people when he said those words, isn’t it also the case that, when we have decided to share our lives, this is the greatest sort of expansion, that two people could be, in a sense, a multitude? Additionally, isn't it also true that one's sense of a partner is perpetually revised in small ways, for good or ill, during the course of a relationship, so that the version of the Other one sees is shifting almost constantly?
As the saying goes, form is content. Some subjects deserve a certain treatment, and the process by which they come to receive that treatment can be rather mysterious. In the case of both Ramis’ film and the current film, the filmmaker is describing something which, at its bottom, cannot be mimetically represented—only some version of our idea of it would make it there. So, what do the filmmakers do? They go out on a structural limb, experimenting in wild ways with time, or with character development, or with structure as a whole. And, in so doing, both directors manage to describe the frustrating and somewhat bottomless nature of human relationships with what could be considered deeply enjoyable realism.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.