How ‘The One I Love’s’ Twisting Narrative Addresses Serial Monogamy

*Spoiler alert: This whole article is about the twists critics were asked not to talk about before the film was released. Proceed very carefully, knowing full well that if you haven’t seen The One I Love, you’re fucking yourself over.*

As Jason Bailey recently wrote, the final “twists” of The One I Love aren’t that twisty compared to its first major twist, which itself wouldn’t have been particularly twisty if the film had been marketed less opaquely. Aptly (and unavoidably) likened to Charlie-Kaufman-lite, The One I Love takes a fundamental but abstract element of human relationships and removes it from the realm of the abstract. What if the ideals we project onto the people we love (or are ceasing to love because they don’t match said ideals) actually coalesced to form entirely different people? This is the fundamental question of the film, at least until it begins branching off into another, more convoluted, pseudo-twisty (yet more interesting?) question towards its end.

Critics have agreed almost unanimously that the film’s abrupt shift from impressionistic alternate reality to full-on sci-fi logic muddles what was otherwise a very clear metaphor, and on first viewing, it seems very hard to disagree. What originally appears a well-executed but simple premise suddenly turns — ever so briefly — into a sci-fi farce, replete with force-fields (why why why does this wonderfully minimalistic film decide to go all Star Wars with the CGI force field??) and what we can only assume are some impeccable innovations in plastic surgery. It’s not that the alternate-dimension doppelgängers introduced at the beginning (this is the aforementioned first major twist) make a lot of logical sense, but they make metaphorical sense, so there’s never any expectation on the viewer’s part that the film would need to fill us in on what/who, exactly, these doppelgängers are. Critics mostly seem to agree that when writer Justin Lader/director Charlie McDowell shift their focus to the complex rules and backstory of the metaphor, doing so opens up more holes and weakens the film as a viewing experience — essentially forsaking its focus on the tangled intricacies of Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass’s deteriorating relationship in favor of the tangled intricacies of a half-baked sci-fi plot.

But while it may be the case that the relationship seems forsaken, in looking back on the film, I’m starting to appreciate the sci-fi explanation as an intriguing extension of the original doppelgänger metaphor into sadder, weirder and darker territory — territory that might comment not just on the nature of relationships, but the fluctuating nature of relationships in this particular era. Strangely, while it perhaps damages the viewing experience — and even perhaps makes The One I Love a generally uneven and imperfect film —t it somehow simultaneously deepens its insinuations about modern love.

Here’s the part where I ruin the movie and give a foundation for what I’m actually talking about, so do look away if you haven’t seen it and would like to remain “surprised”: after Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) are sent to the Ojai Valley for a renewing dysfunctional-couples’ couples retreat, their relationship starts getting better immediately, at least until they realize that the qualities they’re suddenly liking in their partner don’t actually belong to their partner, but to idealized doppelgänger versions of them. This is still twist #1; but now that we’re talking about character-doubles, we’ll refer to original Sophie/Ethan as #1 and doppel Sophie/Stephen as #2.

The retreat has two houses on its property – a main house and a guest house. For the first part of the film, the doppelgänger couple is confined to the guest house, as though it’s a different dimension they cannot exit. Sophie #1 has been less skeptical of the whole funhouse situation than Ethan #1 – she begins falling for Ethan #2, despite the fact that he may not be real; she doesn’t search for answers, but rather plunges willingly into what might be a happy illusion. Ethan #1, however – whose unshakable sense of precaution (and also, interestingly, his affair) was likely a catalyst for their relationship’s stagnation – can’t help but seek answers for everything that’s going on.

At one point, Ethan #1 finds himself alone in the guest house, and starts clicking through the files on an open computer. He finds photos of other couples who’ve been “renewed” at the resort, and then happens upon a chilling sound clip of two voices slowly morphing into his and his wife’s. This of course implies that the doppelgängers aren’t natural alternate versions of themselves, but rather something else — something that has gradually and painstakingly appropriated their identities. Duplass then momentarily finds himself trapped in the guesthouse, and later learns that the only way for the #2s to leave the guesthouse is for them to replace the #1s, who’d thereby be guesthouse prisoners.

The nebulous suggestion is that the therapist’s scheme isn’t so much arbitrarily evil — as it may at first seem — it’s just a rather convoluted cycle of healing through perpetual identity theft. Once Ethan #2 and Sophie #2 have usurped Ethan #1 and Sophie # 1’s lives, Ethan #1 and Sophie # 1 will be trapped in the guesthouse until they likewise usurp the lives and identities of the next couple to get sent here. All this to say that the central mode of “healing” presented in the film is total self-abandonment through the abandonment of a stale relationship. The solution suggested by this enigmatic therapist for these modern lovers is not to simply work out their problems and dialogue about what they could do better, but rather to become entirely different people. Only then will they be able to escape the trap of the guesthouse — a metaphor for these cramped and airless relationships.

This metamorphic cycle sounds exhausting, but then again, so does/is the reliably ephemeral nature of modern relationships. While this film takes place in societal isolation and therefore isn’t particularly techno-zeitgeist heavy, The One I Love‘s unsettling suggestion of fungibility seems very pertinent to the Tinder generation. At this point, we’re (selfishly generalizing here) quite familiarized with the dizzying sense of bounty our favorite dating apps create. But rather than making accidental polyamorists out of everyone, it seems they more often fuel intense serial monogamy. The idea of “why fix something when another is a mere swipe away” seems oddly parallel to the sum of The One I Love’s labyrinth of metaphors.

The film takes the idea of “renewal” to what seems like quite an extreme, but is actually relatively universal: after break-ups, people are left to rebuild their lives and identities time and time again around new loves, which will later be replaced, whereby the process will restart. We might delve into a relationship so deeply that it seems to resemble a home, literally and metaphorically, but the second claustrophobia kicks in, we’re more than willing, and able, to abandon it — and all of its curios, mementos and histories — to jump to the next.

Indeed, the seemingly superfluous explanatory twist at the end of The One I Love — where an image of never-ending metamorphoses and partially ersatz regeneration is evoked — might hold the film’s best and creepiest message. It’s creepy because of course the idea of losing oneself and being forced into a new identity is creepy. And yet we try to do it so often. We’ll keep trying to seek another. We’ll keep trying to be another.