Science fiction is a notoriously difficult genre to pull off on a low-budget, but as proven here in Dana Lustig’s A Thousand Kisses Deep, it’s not impossible. Though scribes Alex Kustanovich and Vadim Moldovan don’t appear to have decided on a firm set of rules to govern their time travel conceit, they have concocted enough surprises and secured a strong enough cast to see it through.
Though employing the titular Leonard Cohen poem as a framing device feels a little too precious, the film effectively builds a mystery from frame one. The ice-cold opening, which is so abrupt it feels like something was cut, aims to create sharp memories in the viewer’s mind which will be important later on.
Mia (Jodie Whittaker) is a mess. Her mother has recently died, she works odd hours as a nurse, and her life lacks both balance and meaning. The suicide of an elderly woman living in the flat above her is a wake up call, all the more so when she notices the ripped-up picture of her former lover, Ludwig (Dougray Scott), scattered around the corpse. Returning to her flat, Mia discovers that the building holds unimaginable power, to show Mia her past, and allow her to correct the future.
Sci-fi has something of a reputation for ignoring emotional pursuits in favour of establishing its gimmick or a sense of time and place. Here, set today, with the most minimalist of time travel vessels – a rickety old lift in her building – there is plenty of breathing room left to get to the heart of the characters. It’s unquestionably grim subject matter, with Mia essentially spending the film negotiation her own existence, but worthy, and explored in an unusual, uncharacteristic manner.
The floors of Mia’s apartment block appear to reflect different periods of her life, regressing backwards in time. She observes her failed love life with Ludwig at different stages, realising that even before he came into her life, he pervaded her existence in until-now unknown ways. Things definitely lean on the flakier side with some forced temporal contrivances – such as how she visits a slightly younger version of herself in a pub, and nobody calls her out as a doppelganger – but on the whole, it does manage to intrigue.
Mia attempts to prevent the self-destruction that she discovers is waiting for her. As it plays out, things invariably go wrong, and her only option is to travel further back and course-correct it at an earlier stage. The only hint she can go on is the suicidal old woman it seems she is destined to become, lying dead amid the torn fragments of Ludwig’s picture.
Suspension of disbelief is certainly required to temper the film’s set-up, which offers little explanation for the time travel, and just inserts Mia willy-nilly into pockets of time which relate to her current predicament, simply because it’s convenient for the script. While it certainly weaves interesting strands all over the place – particularly when she essentially enters into a love triangle with herself – it also relies a little too much on easy functionality, which can strain credibility, even when accepting the nature of a film like this.
What it does well is nail the tender state of its protagonist, and her intense feelings of both love and hate towards her former beau. Such is this that when her time travel uniformly brings the same people together in each temporal leap – through adulthood, young adulthood, childhood, and pre-childhood – we are more intrigued by the drama than distracted by the minor plot holes, and how convenient it all is.
Sure, those around her believe some of her incredulous time-defying feats a little too easily, but the good ideas generally outweigh the less-considered ones. The prevailing notion that time travel, if possible, could uncover unsavoury answers probably best not known, gives way to a devilish twist while still arriving at a simple, clean resolution. Whittaker and Scott, as the couple warring through time, are exemplary.
Scant time travel logic aside, Dana Lustig might finally have found her groove with this unassuming, low-budget sci-fi.
A Thousand Kisses Deep is on limited release from Friday.