The first season of the four-episode French science fiction romantic drama Il était une seconde fois aired on ARTE in September but made its international debut on Netflix last month under the title Twice Upon a Time. (A second series is in the works in France.) Like all but a few of Netflix’s foreign language imports, this one passed under the radar of most critics, and the few that did review the series really didn’t like it, while several French critics (though not all) praised its atmospheric moodiness and impressionistic storytelling, while conceding it’s artsy elements weren’t for everyone. Perhaps surprisingly, I had a quite positive reaction to the moody miniseries. I think that most of the critics in both languages misread it at a foundational level.
Twice Upon a Time tells the story of Vincent (Gaspard Ulliel, from Hannibal Rising), a thirty-something divorced father in France who is grieving because his girlfriend broke up with him, and she later dies. We first meet him drunk and high and having meaningless sex with a random girl at a party to try to forget. The next morning a delivery man mistakenly drops off a package not meant for him, a wooden cube. Vincent discovers that by crawling into the cube he is transported back in time nine months, to a time before the breakup, when Louise (Freya Mavor, from Skins) was still alive and still spending nights with him in the house he inherited from his parents. He finds that he can travel back and forth between past and present at will through the cube.
Vincent decides to use the mysterious cube to attempt to repair his relationship with Louise, prevent the breakup, and save her from dying. The remainder of the series depicts his increasingly obsessive effort to maintain a relationship with Louise in the past while his friends, family, and colleagues in the present worry about his long absences and flaky behavior, which eventually put his job, his home, and his son at risk. In time, Vincent must choose between the past and the present, and the tragedy of Twice Upon a Time is that he isn’t willing to make that choice, even when all logic and reason demand it.
Series creator Guillaume Nicloux (The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq) frames the present in warm colors and a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio and the past in cold colors and a confining square aspect ratio to reinforce the message that this is not a pleasant trip to a romantic paradise. Nicloux said in a French-language press release that he intended the show to function on two levels: “The viewer can construct a puzzle or be guided in an impressionistic way by the emotional journey of the character (of Vincent). It is an open-ended experience, which I hope is enjoyable.”
The bare bones of the plot set up a sort of cutesy romantic comedy, but the execution ranges from melancholy to grim. Some of the finest aspects of the story hover around the edges, where small details transform the viewer’s understanding of the main story, but only if you catch them in passing. The episodes are stacked with symbolism and parallels. Louise suffers a miscarriage in the past, and the gestation period of a fetus—nine months—is the same as the time gap created by the cube. This tells you everything you need to know about the outcome of the lovers’ romance. Throughout the series, Vincent constantly forgets or abandons his young son, and here the key to the show’s message rests.
Many critics sought to read the show as a straightforward romance and were disappointed that it was not a portrait of love. Others tried to puzzle out the (admittedly spotty) science fiction behind the cube and its powers and were disappointed that the show did not double down on the puzzle-box mystery except to hint at a broader conspiracy for the second series and to pepper the background of many scenes with symbolic square and Rubik’s cube imagery.
The fault, which is not really a fault, lies with Ulliel, a French model, who embodies the Hollywood-approved appearance of the handsome romantic lead. He also, from several angles, bears an uncanny resemblance to Matt Lanter, who similarly traversed time in the hope of rescuing a lost love as Wyatt on NBC’s Timeless. Hollywood has conditioned us to see the handsome straight white male lead’s motives as noble and pure, and therefore, if you aren’t paying attention, it’s all too easy to root for Vincent and to imagine he is doing right by trying to control Louise’s life and manipulate her into staying with him. He stalks her, gaslights her, and even has sex with her while she’s asleep. Ulliel does brilliant work contrasting the superficial charm of Vincent against the empty nothingness within him. Vincent fails at every part of life over and again without consequence because everyone in his life forgives him and makes excuses for him because he seems sweet, handsome, and friendly.
If you watch Twice Upon a Time as a romance or as a mystery, you are likely to be disappointed. Instead, it is a character study of arrested development. Vincent only looks the part of a romantic hero. Beneath the surface, he’s still stuck in the past—literally now as well as figuratively. Vincent is a dilettante and a dreamer with no ambition, still living in his childhood home and working a teenager’s job at a pet store. He is indifferent to his child’s mother throwing herself at him for sex, and he might be happy to abandon his kid, leaving him home alone or in the middle of a park for hours or even days, forgetting he even exists as he pursues his selfish pleasures. All of this his friends, his family, his boss, and even his son forgive as he avoids any semblance of responsibility or maturity.
But he can’t stand that Louise said no.
When he travels through the cube, he enters into a past that is as much fantasy as reality. Even his therapist makes him see that he speaks of it as though it were a dream. The Louise inside the cube is warmer and kinder, quite literally brought to extreme orgasms by Vincent’s supposedly supernatural sexual skills. Vincent’s son mysteriously doesn’t need him here, or at least is never seen (Louise claims never to have met him), and Vincent can flit between France and England at will. But the past Vincent tries to reshape to his own selfish ends refuses to conform to his fantasies. He learns that he cannot escape reality. And that leads to the inevitable consequences.
Twice Upon a Time is not a perfect show. Several plot threads seem designed to tease a second season. In places the impressionistic nature of the narrative is more obscure than artistic, and like every narrative of its kind, it strains credulity that a handful of people would keep interacting and intersecting across time and space. The three timelines in the show aren’t always easy to keep straight, particularly when the characters wear the same clothes at different times and places. And the action can be a little slow.
But what I liked about Twice Upon a Time is how much of its story it asks the viewer to construct from the accumulation of small details, each of which tugs on and sometimes tears at the surface level story until they overwhelm and undercut the story you initially think you’re watching. It’s a character study of a man-child who uses an amazing gift selfishly and doesn’t quite understand why he has to suffer the consequences.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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