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Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century is a Frankenstein’s monster of a film. The only way to describe it is to identify where each limb came from. It has the legs of silent-era melodramas, the neurotic, lovelorn brain of Charlie Kaufman, the stiff upper lip of Powell and Pressburger’s wartime love stories, and a digestive tract straight from John Waters. None of this is meant as criticism. It could be argued that the history of cinema is little more than a chain of influence, with the best filmmakers able to achieve personal statements couched in borrowed techniques and styles. Rankin is one of those filmmakers.
The film doesn’t confine its lessons to film history; it’s a psychedelic biopic that mashes up Canada’s own political past with the director’s personal peccadilloes. W.L. Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) was indeed one of the country’s most popular and long-serving leaders, but he wasn’t enmeshed in the Second Boer War, as he is in The Twentieth Century. There is no evidence that he spent his early years worshipping at the feet of his infirm mother (Louis Negin), convinced of his own destiny to be Canada’s greatest ruler, nor stalking the beautiful daughter (Catherine St-Laurent) of the Governor-General (Seán Cullen) or secretly indulging in a high-grade shoe fetish. Nor do we know if King ever caught his father eating toilet paper, or if he spent time in a sanitarium for compulsive onanists.
A wildly inventive narrative held together by vision, guts, and craft, The Twentieth Century is dense in its themes but light on its feet. No director would attempt to tell such a bizarre story grounded in anything resembling reality, but few would embrace fantasy as fully as Rankin does, making the twee, stylized world of Wes Anderson look like neorealism in comparison. It’s a cinematic pop-up book filled with neon colors, animal puppets, and a DIY sense of scale to convey the enormity of the story on what was surely a shoestring budget. It’s a profound work of postmodernist history, and its lessons are rooted in ancient techniques; Rankin satirizes classic war propaganda with the eye of an expert, and employs nontraditional casting—King’s mother and one of his love interests are both played by men in wigs—in the style of Shakespeare.
It’s also hilariously funny. The Twentieth Century might blow minds with its inventive approach to history, but it also contains gut-busting comic set pieces, including a political contest that measures such Canadian virtues as throat-clearing and clubbing baby seals (don’t worry, the seals are puppets). There’s also an orphanage called the House of Defective Children, and a Winnipeg drug dealer who clandestinely offers our hero “heroin, bare naked ladies, or reasonably priced furniture.” Yes, there are plenty of jokes at Canada’s expense—themselves a Canadian hallmark—but few are so esoteric that an average American wouldn’t understand.
It may sound like a lot to take in, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Twentieth Century is how watchable it is. At a swiftly paced 90 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome, and Beirne’s lead performance as a young man coming to grips with his averageness grounds the dazzling film in plain humanity. The Twentieth Century is a radical work that takes brazen liberty with established histories, but it hits home as a story about a guy trying to find some peace in a complex, overwhelming, and beautiful world.
The Twentieth Century is available to stream through AFI Silver starting Nov. 20.