It’s a wild Canada at the turn of the twentieth century, and much progress is happening at the expense and patience of their national government. The torch is about to be passed to a new prime minister who can support this progress without losing national pride, and more importantly, his cool. Thus sets in motion the nearly true story of W.L. Mackenzie King (Dan Bierne), and the lengths he will go to strengthen the balance between work and leisure, while indirectly making light of excessive government control. The experimental film scene to emerge out of our northerly neighbors has squeaked out a rather befitting product in the form of writer/director Matthew Rankin’s feature debut The Twentieth Century. In every sense, an unexpectedly profound and perverse work of filmmaking.
Rankin models his story more on theme than on straight fact, bordering on the satirical, or chivalrously mocking, depending on who one is describing the plot. Ranging in influence from Franz Kafka to David Lynch to Guy Maddin, King’s story is anything but straightforward. However, such a deep focus on the man, using his diaries as a blueprint, can only expose what most history books will not tell, and Bierne nails those varied eccentricities with no slack. He’s a spineless, witless, shy individual, looking for romance but uncertain how to approach the idea with a few potential suitors. While he has an eye for the lovely Ruby Elliot (Catherine St-Laurent), an angelic harpist whose instrument substitutes for a siren’s call, his collegiate competitor, the hunky Bert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja), will already have swept her feet. Even settling for his eventually betrothed, the quirky Nurse Lapointe (Sarianne Cornier) puts King in a difficult quandary before his pages run out.
King’s darling mother (a stunning Louis Negin in drag, one of a handful of cross-gendering roles) is no help, an overbearing woman with high aspirations for his kid, managing to predict his political rise. His likeminded peers in parliament are all like secondary school bullies of the era. Moreover, his enemies clearly don’t have his country in their best interests. Specifically the fiendish Lord Muto (Sean Cullen), the new governor-general who finds raw joy in constantly keeping King on his toes. After ranking second in a list of events to show his strength in manhood, the youthful senator is sent out of the big city on a series of errands trips to further show his leadership skills, and moreover his compassion. It’s certainly not enough that his biggest fan, a TB patient bears optimism toward this candidate that he can outlaw her ailment. He needs to show to the entire country he can not only lead, but make things happen.
From the treeless wastes of Vancouver, to the oddly satanic icecaps of northernmost Alberta, and most points in between, every location is nailed down to provoke utter silliness. And often every prop, such as tall cacti to illustrate King’s erotic obsession with women’s footwear, or a simple ice skate blade turned into a weapon of warning. May Dany Boivin wear a badge of honor, knowing his mad aesthetic reaches the point of restrictive torture devices utilized to keep King focused. Python fans be pleased as Rankin’s high-art blueprint is effortlessly realized, through the help of captured in a window box viewpoint by DoP Vincent Biron and his exciting use of primarily 16mm photography. All as shadow props, forced perspective, and even a proficient amount of puppetry add to the insanity, given a bombastic orchestral sound through Peter Venne and Christopher LeMarche-Ledoux’s score.
Eventually, it has to come back around to home, and King must confront his evil enemies. Cullen, Ahooja, and Brent Skagford (as the equally machismo Arthur Meighen), make for menacing enough antagonistic threats, serving to ground the plot before its good faith dissipates. Bierne gives a strong go to wage effortless chemistry between both friends and opponents. His burgeoning puppy-dog lovesickness with Cornier, one of many firm character bonds Rankin dots his off the charts landscape. It’s these delightful performances managing to keep his plot grounded in reality, while its zippy, warped sense of humor elevates higher and higher.
In queering up his own personal enthusiasm for Quebecois lore, he’s merely raising the scale of outlandishness only Canadian-based crowds may notice if they haven’t already. They’ve proven The Twentieth Century to be a must-see hoot, aware of the fact it’s a good-natured parody of the optimistic self-identity they’re known for, and the lengths taken for its protection. It’s that firm, diverse sense of historical characterization, a call answered by a richly welcoming cast ready to roll with every obscene and unconventional punch, which kept me affixed to my screen, but that may turn some folks away as its rollout continues in virtual cinemas and online. Destined to shock classrooms of history students and delight the raw-nerve avant garde cinephile, it may otherwise be a hard sell. But Rankin doesn’t care, he’s an imaginative filmmaker who, after having worked his way up the food chain up north, a right hand man for Maddin, and a master in the realm of shorts, has made a bright feature debut deserving of attention. Already one of the best comedies to be found in 2020, but in remolding the typical political biopic to be a big middle finger to toxic patriotism, also the most inventive. (A-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Twentieth Century is currently playing in virtual cinemas nationwide including Seattle’s Grand Illusion and Scarecrow Video; film does not have an MPAA rating, but expect some salty language and a few suggestive situations; 90 minutes.