‘The Twentieth Century’: Film Review

Director Matthew Rankin’s debut ‘The Twentieth Century’ took home the Best Canadian First Feature prize in Toronto.

If you thought the sight of Justin Trudeau wearing his favorite Halloween costume was alarming, you should check out the budding Prime Minister in writer-director Matthew Rankin’s totally twisted take on Canadian history, The Twentieth Century.

Best described as Guy Maddin meets John Waters by way of Powell and Pressburger, this faux fin de siècle biopic includes, among other things, an ejaculating cactus, an erection alarm, a pissing contest in the snow and a guy with a major fetish for stinky old boots. The fact that all of these elements are somehow intertwined with actual historical figures is just one of many wild things in this beguiling feature debut, which took home Toronto’s award for Best Canadian First Feature Film. Further fest play and a pending U.S. release from Oscilloscope are what’s next.

The Bottom Line

Proudly and perversely Canadian.

Charting the roller-coaster ride to power of the legendary Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) — for those unfamiliar with anything about Canada beyond maple syrup and Mike Myers, King served three terms as Prime Minister and guided his nation through WWII — the film focuses on the period in 1899 when he was fresh out of school and looking to run for office for the first time. Idealistic and filled with Canuck pride, King is also depicted as a naive momma’s boy with severe Oedipal issues, a tendency to fall in love with any girl who talks to him and an uncontrollable sexual compulsion for tattered footwear.

It’s not sure these last attributes are part of your typical high school curriculum, and part of what should make The Twentieth Century so enjoyable for Canadian viewers is how Rankin takes such complete liberties with his country’s historical heavyweights, turning them into a bunch of sex-crazed despots and cartoonish puppets. Alongside King, there’s also party hopeful Bert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja), rival candidate Arthur Meighen (Brent Skagford), the evil Justice Hugh Richardson (Trevor Anderson) and Quebecois figureheads like J. Israël Tarte (Annie St-Pierre).

Taking on the guise of a 1940s melodrama, with a box-like Academy ratio and a digital grade meant to resemble three-strip Technicolor, the film is divided into several chapters where we see King entering the political realm, falling for a beautiful blond harpist (Catherine St-Laurent, Tu Dors Nicole), then for a French-Canadian nurse (Sarianne Cormier), all the while staving off the urge to masturbate whenever he catches sight of a pungent old shoe.

With his country torn between fascists and Free Quebec zealots, the young and not-so-innocent King gets bounced about like a pinball in a phantasmagorical land of sexual frustration, mass hysteria and other Freudian triggers just waiting to fire off. Or, to quote one line of dialogue that pretty much sums things up: “Canada is just one failed orgasm after another.”

You probably have to be a fan of either Maddin, whose humor and retro aesthetics were clearly an inspiration here (Rankin plays a role in the avant-garde filmmaker’s My Winnepeg, and also hails from that city) or a lover of Canadian history, or ideally a bit of both, to fully appreciate this ambitious if sometimes overtaxing effort, which sits between a gross-out biographical comedy and a campy old-school spoof. The jokes are often ridiculous, as is pretty much everything else that happens, but there’s a palpable energy and visual inventiveness on display that keeps things watchable. 

Prior to this first feature, Rankin honed his craft directing dozens of shorts (The Tesla World Light, Tabula Rasa), a few of which won awards. He definitely masters the kind of stylistic mimicry that makes The Twentieth Century feel like both a throwback to an MGM weepie and a colorized acid trip through historic hell, plunging us into a universe that’s entirely his own. The decors, which were designed by Dany Boivin, are particularly striking, with nods to classics like A Matter of Life and Death and The Lady From Shanghai — the latter during a finale that’s set, of course, on ice skates.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Production company: Voyelles Films
Cast: Dan Beirne, Mikhaïl Ahooja, Catherine Saint-Laurent, Sarianne Cormier, Brent Skagford, Richard Jutras
Director/screenwriter/editor: Matthew Rankin
Producers: Gabrielle Tougas-Fréchette, Ménaïc Raoul
Director of photography: Vincent Biron
Production designer: Dany Boivin
Costume designer: Patricia McNeil
Composers: Peter Venne, Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux
Sales: Best Friend Forever

In English, French
90 minutes