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Spoiling the one I love

December 25, 2014

For whatever reason I haven’t written about film in almost a year. I should rectify that. (Aside: watch Rectify.) What better time to do so than Christmas? (No, really, it makes sense, I promise.)

It’s not that I haven’t seen any movies worth watching. But the reviews I write here are really half-review, half mini-analysis, and nothing I’ve seen recently has cried out for analysis which only I could provide. Well, until I watched “The One I Love” (2014). I haven’t seen a single discussion of the film that actually gets at what’s interesting about it. This is likely because it’s impossible to talk about the movie intelligibly without spoiling it. So I guess I’ll just have to do that. Along the way, I’ll also talk a decent amount about the film “Side Effects” (2013), as a point of comparison.

The thing is, while I’ve argued in the past that spoilers, in general, don’t spoil anything, this does not apply to these movies. If you read what follows, not only will you know the plot of both movies in advance–which isn’t usually a big deal–but it will become impossible for you to experience the movies as they intend to be experienced. If you read the rest of this post before watching them, you might as well not watch them at all. Of course, “The One I Love” (the better of the two) is on Netflix Instant and is only 91 minutes long, so maybe just watch it before reading. “Side Effects” is too, for that matter; it’s 106 minutes.

Just know that, despite the title, “The One I Love” is not really a great date movie.

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Spoilers will follow. You have been warned.

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the-one-I-love-posterWhy do I think this movie shouldn’t be spoiled? Is it because, when it starts, you think it’s just a normal relationship-drama movie, and then sixteen minutes in you realize it’s an eerie science-fiction story about a house that lets you hang out with an ideal version of your spouse while your highly flawed real-life spouse waits in the other wing?

Of course not. Announcing this fact will not change the viewer’s experience of the movie one bit. We know that the house has “something” going on from the moment we see the first Matryoshka doll (ten minutes in?). We know to expect something unnerving from the moment Ethan and Sophie strike that first cacophonous chord on the piano (two minutes?). And once we hear the title “The One I Love,” and learn that it has only two main characters–and this can happen before we even see the movie, just from looking at the poster–we know exactly what this movie will be about: not whether we love Alice or Carol, but whether we love our love, or the someone it’s for.

Knowing about the creepy ideal-spouse-house doesn’t spoil anything. When we realize what’s going on, it might be unexpected, but it’s not surprising. It feels perfectly natural; an insightful metaphor, an outer reflection of an inner reality. The house just externalizes the dynamic we saw at work in this relationship from the very first scene.

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Perhaps another break. For those who haven’t seen the movie, but heard that spoiler elsewhere, and decided I was making too much of it. That’s not the spoiler I have in mind.

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Nor do I quite have in mind the fact that (as you, who have seen the movie, know) the creepy ideal-spouse-house turns out to be, well, creepy: it’s not meant to fix the Ethan and Sophie’s relationship, but to replace it, trapping them in the house while ideal!Ethan and ideal!Sophie take over their life. Nor the fact that, according to not-necessarily-trustworthy ideal!Sophie, this cycle was meant to repeat itself, Ethan and Sophie being reshaped in the idealized image of the next couple that the therapist sent to the house. The second of these is a minor detail (though with significant implications, see below). The first is, again, an outer reflection of an inner reality.

It’s this inner reality that counts as a spoiler: the inner reality of Sophie’s betrayal. When the movie begins, we sympathize almost equally with Ethan and Sophie, and hope that they will be able to reconcile, to save each other. By the time ideal!Sophie tells Ethan how the house “really” works, we’ve given up on Sophie entirely, and just want Ethan to get out of there in one piece. Only his desire to save Sophie from herself gives us reason to care about her.

The movie needs us to experience this desire, and to experience its frustration. If we know beforehand that Sophie betrays Ethan, this becomes, if not impossible, at least more difficult.

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Betrayal is one of the only kinds of spoiler that can actually matter. But not all filmic betrayals will ruin the movie if known beforehand. Take the typical mentor-turned-supervillain, e.g. Obadiah Stane in “Iron Man”. Perhaps his betrayal of Tony Stark unexpected, if you didn’t read the comics, and aren’t genre-savvy; but it’s not as if Obadiah had been, up to then, a character we trusted with all our heart. Tony is tricked, but the film makes no effort to trick us. This betrayal is tragic irony, but it’s not a spoiler. It’s Sophie’s betrayal of us, the audience, that really stings, and that has to sting. If it doesn’t, the movie doesn’t work.

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side-effects-posterNow, “Side Effects” plays a similar game to “The One I Love”. At first we think the movie will be about the fractured marriage of Emily and Martin; and Emily is prescribed psychoactive drugs by her psychiatrist (a bit like being told by a therapist to take a vacation at a remote cabin). But then Emily stabs Martin to death, apparently under the influence of the drugs; is she a tragic victim? No, we slowly realize: she’s a criminal mastermind. The psychiatrist who prescribed the drugs must spend the rest of the movie trying to clear his name by revealing her plan to commit murder and get away with it.

But the effect isn’t quite the same. When Emily is exposed, we don’t feel betrayed, only deceived. We thought she was one person, but she turned out to be another; well, we were lied to; it happens. What’s the moral–don’t trust psychopaths? Not coincidentally, “Side Effects” isn’t at all about how the husband reacts to the deception; the husband is dead. It’s the psychiatrist–the impartial third party, trying only to clear his name–who must step in and reveal her deception. It’s a fun thriller, but there’s nothing particularly deep about the conflicts it examines.

“The One I Love” is more sinister. We know who Sophie is from the beginning; from the beginning we know that she loves ideal!Ethan more than she does her real husband. We knew who she was; we just didn’t know what she would do, how far she would take her her rejection of reality. She was a main character in a romantic almost-comedy; we trusted her to do the right thing; and she betrayed us. Looking back, we feel as if we should have seen it coming. But no one saw it coming–not even her.

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So what’s the moral? What do we learn from this betrayal? Well, for one: fantasies are dangerous.

Of course, we all know this. We realize pretty quickly that the ideal-spouse-house won’t lead anywhere good (though the therapist, an authority figure, said it would, so perhaps we hold out some faint hopes). I doubt many of us sympathized with Sophie’s desire to return to the house, after they agree to leave; I know I didn’t. But I wonder how many sympathized with Ethan’s surrender to her desire. He wants to save his marriage, he wants to make his wife happy; and, he admits, he’s curious, wants to know what’s going on; so he agrees to something he thinks is a bad idea.

It would have been better, perhaps, for him to hold his ground; perhaps she would have left him over his refusal, but perhaps she wouldn’t have. We’ll never know, because she doesn’t know; this is what makes her betrayal a betrayal, not just a deception.

Well, they do go back, and things go downhill; by the end of the movie, we have lost entirely the ability to sympathize with Sophie, and so, inevitably, we have lost the desire to do so. We begin by caring about her, and end by caring only about the fact that Ethan cares about her. Insofar as we hope that the woman he escapes with at the end is the real Sophie (and we may not quite know what to hope, at this point), we hope this for Ethan’s sake.

Which is to say, we move from caring about the someone, to caring about the love: the same fantastical mistake Sophie made. Ethan, not Sophie, is “the one [we] love,” while his love for Sophie is the love we love. We have made Sophie’s reality a fetish, and so, in a sense, the conclusion of the movie is our fault. When Ethan (and we) realize, after he and Sophie escape, that this is probably (though not certainly) ideal!, not real, Sophie, he is perhaps surprised, but we are not (though we may be surprised by our lack of surprise): what is this but a reflection of our indifference to Sophie’s true fate?

Though the ending is Ethan’s fault as well; he made Sophie’s reality a fetish before we did.

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If our experience of the movie mirrors Ethan’s, then there is also a sense in which Ethan’s mirrors our own. Read allegorically, the movie becomes a parable about the audience’s relationship with a difficult work of art, and what happens when the audience insists on knowing “what the art really means.”

Ethan is the audience; Sophie, the meaning of the work of art; the ideal-spouse-house, the place of interpretive struggle. Here the audience confronts his ideal!Sophie, that is, his interpretations of the work, and compares them to the real thing. At the same time, the audience worries about the desire the work projects for ideal!Ethan, that is, for an ideal audience. Now, all works of art have such desires; all works of art are written for a certain audience that may well not, in its ideal form, ever exist. But Sophie is not just any work, she is a difficult one. We know this because she insists on the audience’s ideality: no audience is better than any audience less than perfect. Ultimately, the audience escapes from the place of interpretive struggle, and brings with it a meaning: perhaps the real Sophie, but more likely, a fantastic substitute.

What is the nature of the ideal-spouse-house? Here things get quite tangled up. For ideal!Sophie, remember, explained to Ethan how the house “really” works: the visiting couple get trapped in the house, and somehow magically transformed in the image of the next couple to visit, such that real Ethan and Sophie would become ideal!Bob and ideal!Alice, for the next Bob and Alice sent there by the therapist; while ideal!Ethan and ideal!Sophie went out into the world, taking over the original Ethan and Sophie’s life. According to ideal!Sophie, ideal!Ethan is betraying her when he tries to run away with the real Sophie, and ideal!Sophie just wants Ethan and Sophie to leave so she and her husband can at least stay together, even if they remain trapped. But how much of this can we accept as true? This depends on whether we think Ethan winds up with real or ideal!Sophie.

If he winds up with ideal!Sophie, then ideal!Sophie did not intend to stay with ideal!Ethan at all; or, at least, when ideal!Ethan falls down apparently dead, she shifts her affections to the real Ethan very quickly–and, simultaneously, begins lying to him. This scenario calls into question everything ideal!Sophie says, including her explanation of the ideal-spouse-house. In this reading, she’s just telling Ethan what he wants to hear: he’s been trying to play detective, to figure out what’s “really” going on, and so she tells him a story, knowing it’ll make him trust her. She knows that, really, the house has no such causal explanation. She also knows that the goal is not for the ideal couple to run away together, leaving the real couple trapped; rather, they are in a competition, each trying to convince their respective real partner to run away first–a competition which ideal!Sophie won. Which is to say, the audience did not abandon the quest to understand the difficult work of art, leaving it to the artwork’s idealized reader, but, rather, it accepted a false interpretation, thus dooming itself to continually wondering whether it had deceived itself.

If Ethan winds up with the real Sophie, then we have no reason to suspect the explanation ideal!Sophie offered: she claimed to love ideal!Ethan more than her freedom, and she stayed behind when she could have escaped by abandoning him. So Ethan succeeded: he escaped the house with a true understanding of how it operates, a true interpretation. But what meaning did he find in Sophie, the work of art? This had seemed the happier reading, but perhaps it’s the more disturbing one: for he realizes that art is no different from life, and that neither really allows for discussion of an “original”; it’s just interpretations all the way down, each interpretation provoking a response, the dialogue slowly shifting until it becomes unrecognizable. Put more mundanely, Sophie can change, allowing him to eat bacon when before she did not; this does not make her ideal!Sophie, but neither does it allow her to be the fetishized-real Sophie whom Ethan had desired. We are left with no real reason for resisting the ideal-spouse-house’s attempt to transform us into an entirely different person; and yet we recoil from it in horror. And, by thus recoiling, we have destroyed the house forever (if we believe that ideal!Ethan–i.e. some real Bob–is truly dead). But then, the work of art started the dynamic of destruction: Sophie made getting at the original difficult, until Ethan realized that it was impossible.

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Well, I could go on, but I’m in a position somewhat like that of Ethan: how do I know whether this interpretation gets at the meaning of the movie, or whether it has strayed into a fantasy, an explication of a movie that exists nowhere but in my own mind? Enough close reading of the movie’s meaning. What do we do with it all?

I’m not one to cry “misogynist” very often, but it is, I think, hard to avoid feeling as if the movie doesn’t quite treat Sophie fairly, and suspecting that this has a lot to do with her being a woman–just as the psychopathy of Emily in “Side Effects” is portrayed as particularly feminine even hyper-feminine (she’s a lesbian! run!). Not that Sophie is a psychopath, that is, a person whose consciousness we cannot imagine inhabiting. But there’s a fine line between a character being unsympathetic, and a character being unimaginable, and I think Sophie’s portrayal comes dangerously close to crossing it. We begin by sympathizing with Sophie, because the generic situation demands it; we turn away from such sympathy, because Sophie’s actions horrify us; and we recognize that her horrific actions are a development, not a departure, from her original personality, and so feel betrayed. But was our original sympathy with Sophie ever more than an acceptance of the generic conventions–was she ever actually a plausible character? Do we end by saying “there but for the grace of God go I,” or by saying, “Isn’t it lucky that people like that don’t exist”? I’m not sure.

I would have been shocked if either of these films had been written by women, and, indeed, neither were. Both are about a particular way men (including me) sometimes relate to women–the feeling that we don’t know what they want, and that this ignorance is somehow frightening.

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While I don’t want to imply that, in these situations, what the woman “really” wants is always children, I do find it striking that, in both of these films, the possibility of having children is never mentioned.

And this despite the fact that the couples in question are not just “in love,” or falling out of love, but actually married. They must be married, of course, because otherwise they would never put effort into saving their failing relationships; they would just leave. But neither can their relationship be given material reality; if they had children, their children might keep them together, and these movies are all about what, if anything, can keep them together, when nothing but the word “marriage” seems to matter. At least, both seem to begin with this question. But both, before they’re over, have already concluded that nothing can, and have moved on to asking whether there’s even anyone there to be married to.

This makes these movies rather different from “Upstream Color” and “To the Wonder,” in which (as my review argued) the sterility of the romance is not ignored, but given a place of prominence. “Side Effects” and “The One I Love” are both horror movies about relationships breaking down. They do not, like “Upstream Color” and “To the Wonder,” put much thought into what might stop them from doing so. This is perhaps because, unlike the latter movies, the former regard the breakdown as without any particular cause; as simply fated, inevitable; as a result of women acting incomprehensibly, as women incomprehensibly do. It’s no coincidence that (though all four were written by men) the horror movies focus on the husband, while the diagnostic movies take the wife to be the main protagonist.

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A final word, about the ars poetica reading of “The One I Love,” and about the absence of children. If, as my argument suggests, the events of “The One I Love” are a result of the failure of Ethan and Sophie’s marriage to be about anything other than themselves; and if those events can be taken as an allegory for the impossibility of correctly interpreting “difficult” art, at least, so long as that art is about nothing but itself; does this mean that we can imagine a movie (perhaps a boring one, or at least a happy one) in which “the one I love” is the couple’s child, and in which this child stands for stands for the possibility of audience and artwork coming together, not in conflict, but in a (pro)creative union?

Well–perhaps. We can certainly imagine an movie attempting such an allegory. But could it pull it off? It’s not clear (to quote Eliot) that such an “impossible union / Of spheres of existence” can ever be made “actual,” unless it be in the “Incarnation”; for (to quote Maritain) “In creatures, the intellect does not succeed in producing in similitude of nature another ‘itself’; it does not, properly speaking, engender; it utters a word, but this word is not a son.” Only God can do that.

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picasso-mother-and-child-1922

Pablo Picasso. Mother and Child. 1922. Because, why not?

For those still with me: Merry Christmas! I told you we’d get around to the Navity eventually.

Since this post is quite a bit longer than usual (why, o why do I write term papers for classes that exist only in my mind?), I’ll be waiting more than the usual week between posts. You’ll hear from me again sometime in the first week of January.

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