THE ONE I LOVE B+
USA (91 mi) 2014 d: Charlie McDowell
USA (91 mi) 2014 d: Charlie McDowell
Mark Duplass and mumblecore have come a long way since THE PUFFY CHAIR (2005), made for a meager $15,000 at the time, and while a decade later he’s still making low-budget indie movies shot on a miniscule budget, but having commercial and critical success with Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and now another Sundance audience favorite, what’s evident is they are expanding the kind of material they can explore, moving on from the el cheapo relationship movies, pointing a camera at two people talking endlessly, adding a touch of sci-fi into the mix simply because they have the technology now to shoot it on the fly without increasing the costs. The most important thing to say about this film is to see it before word gets out, before you learn anything about it, as one’s appreciation for the film is likely increased the less you know going into the theater. Reviews have been intentionally vague, as they don’t want to spoil any of the secrets laying in wait for prospective viewers, where one suspects there are more than a few surprises. Actually there are plenty, as this film delivers what it sets out to do, which is make something of a mind-fuck of a movie that leaves the audience in a state of bewilderment, which is the thrill and enjoyment of watching this movie. There are several keys to the success, where like Polanski’s Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure) (2014), this is for the most part another two-person play, written by Justin Lader in his first feature, where the performances by Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are simply superb, and therein lies the real charm and appeal of the film, as the characters couldn’t be more beautifully developed. Mumblecore followers tend to have short memories and don’t really have an appreciation for films of yore, where living in the present is their mantra, so this film will feel all the more inventive to them, where the movie intentionally references The Twilight Zone (1959 – 64), likely something few of them have ever actually seen, but only heard about. The audiences for these films (like the characters onscreen) are notably young, upwardly mobile and slightly wealthy, where poverty is something “other people” have to deal with, as their narcissistic concerns are exclusively about themselves, an extension of the Me Generation, where so many of the mumblecore movies feature inert characters seemingly paralyzed by their inability to make decisions, completely incapable of articulating their thoughts, featuring a heavy use of improvisation, where the naturalistic flair for ambiguity-laden dialogue becomes the artistic centerpiece and takes the place of the movie actually having to be about something meaningful. Over time, mumblecore scripts have branched out into something more than the inevitable dialogue-heavy Woody Allen style relationship movie, but this remains the inherent focus. To see what is normally such a flippant attitude from the overly casual mumblecore style take on such deeply complex issues in this film with such stark originality is not only stunning, but revelatory. It should be stated here and now that this small, low budget American indie film made by a first time director is more enjoyable and possibly even better than most all of the more heavily acclaimed features playing in Competition at Cannes every year.
The premise of the film is a disintegrating marriage between Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie, Elisabeth Moss, who rose to fame as the President’s daughter Zoey Bartlet in The West Wing (1999-2006) before starring as a thoroughly modern woman in Mad Men (2007 – present), who are initially seen in therapy recalling the night they first met, where there was a rush of excitement when they made a spontaneous decision to jump into a stranger’s pool when they thought nobody was at home, only to receive a tongue-lashing from the incensed owner who angrily kicked them out. When they sneak into the pool and try to relive that same moment years later, hoping to revive some of that lost magic, this time there really is nobody at home, so while they’re floating in the water waiting for the inevitable to come, it never does, as instead nothing happens. Realizing they only made fools of themselves, as time has altered the nature of their relationship, they are now seeking help to rebuild shattered trust issues by working with a non-traditional therapist (Ted Danson) who suggests they spend a secluded weekend together in a remote Northern California location where they can get a fresh start on their relationship. The estate couldn’t be more luxurious, an immense manor, giant swimming pool, and fully equipped guest house set against the elaborate inner gardens with expansive views of the rolling hills of the area. Immediately they sense a renewed vibe in the air, free from all distractions, where here they can concentrate just on each other, which has an alluring appeal to it, as if under the potent spell of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As they explore the grounds, their curiosity gets the better of them, where as they visit the guest cottage, there is a sudden surge of romantic energy that feels almost too good to be true. Even more surprising, Ethan claims none of this ever happened, that he was asleep in the main house the whole time. After a bit of finger pointing, suggesting bad jokes are in poor taste, they soon realize that each one encounters an “other” version of their partner when visiting the guest house alone, a more idealized version of what they wished their partner would be like. While this freaks out Ethan, particularly the idea that this “other” Ethan is sleeping with his wife and doing a better job of it, while Sophie is more open to the idea and embraces this “other” version of Ethan, as he’s able to verbally communicate all the things that have been missing in their relationship, becoming fascinated with this new development. But the more Sophie accepts the idea, the more Ethan feels like the odd man out, developing a claustrophobic rush of low self-esteem and paranoia.
While we have seen this sort of thing before, most recently in François Ozon’s In the House (Dans La Maison) (2012), where a student’s writing exercise conjures up sparks in the imagination of a bored professor reading the composition, where the fiction of the written page suddenly takes on a life of its own, coming alive to the reader, exploring the obsessive nature of the reader himself, literally taking him inside the home of a family he never knew, where suddenly he becomes a passive viewer watching their lives unfold through the meticulous detail of the writer. This seamless blend of fiction and fantasy has been an Ozon attribute throughout his career. Perhaps more exactly, it resembles a similar game being played in Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau) (1974), one of the foundations of modern experimental cinema, playfully altering the narrative scope of films where real life intersects with theater, rehearsal, memory, dreams, imagination, time, and even hallucination, each one altering the audience’s perception of what they see onscreen. While this wonderment in Céline and Julie is expressed through a kind of Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole dream fantasia, never knowing what to expect, we follow each character as they enter an old Parisian mansion, finding themselves trapped in one of the roles in a play within a play, an old costume drama that exists in its own continuously repeating sense of time, where each entry into the house produces slightly altered clues and changing events. In each of these films, this phantasmagoric universe existing side by side with their own lives is a puzzle play that explores a world of liberating possibilities, breaking free of conventionality and often suffocating restrictions from a completely ordered society. This use of doubles and triples has a way of scrutinizing the existing reality, commenting upon its obvious limitations while playing into fantasies of wish fulfillment, as how much significance should this play in our lives, where we can dream the lives we wish we were living, but how disappointed is it to then discover we’re trapped in another world that fails to live up to that degree of intensity and idealized happiness? This is a clever means of exploring an existing relationship, where the fantasy world interacts with the real, becoming tainted with the same fears and paranoia, poisoning the waters, so to speak, while also clarifying the extreme degrees of separation. Like Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), it often takes a meandering journey into the unknown to offer insight into the world we do live in, where we routinely lose sight of the important values in relationships that end up meaning the most. People thoughtlessly throw these core principles away all the time in pursuit of quick fixes and false notions of happiness, but holding onto them is the key, not being fooled by the illusion of “fool’s gold,” that there’s always some better world out there just waiting for you, as the curtain closes to the sounds of the Mamas & Papas - Dedicated To The One I Love - YouTube (2:07).