Reserve a special place in your heart for films like The Twentieth Century. There are plenty of movies with sincere artistic ambition and plenty that are genuinely well-made, yet too few fulfil both demands with the level of success achieved here by Matthew Rankin in only his first feature-length work. Fewer still reach the kind of audience numbers worthy of them, so at least reserve a place in your watchlist for this stylish, innovative period comedy.

Rankin’s first and most profound stroke of genius is in pitching his story as a comedy at all and, indeed, as such an audaciously perverse one as this. It’s a true story rendered almost entirely speculative by liberal twisting and tweaking of verifiable historical fact, alongside a generous helping of queerness and depravity that jars magnificently with the buttoned-up conservatism in the period and premise. The story is that of William Lyon Mackenzie King, longtime leader of the Liberal Party in Canada and the country’s Prime Minister three times from the early 1920s to the late 1940s. Rankin depicts his initial ascent to the top ranks in the party around the dawn of the 20th Century, spinning a new narrative out of existing facts to better suit his artistic pursuits.

A queer-themed film that plays fast and loose with the facts of a historical figure’s life? If it sounds all a bit Bohemian Rhapsody to you, fear not, for The Twentieth Century functions as almost the exact opposite of Bryan Singer’s 2018 aberration. This is a boldly stylized, brazenly uncommercial film that actively queers its content, often without identifiable reason or provocation. It’s also quite fabulous, often directly because of its that queerness. Rankin’s version of Mackenzie King’s tale is one in which he’s assaulted from all angles by the homosexual desires of others, the hypersexual desires of himself and a cast of crossdressers.

It’d be one thing – a rather enjoyable thing, no doubt – to watch a movie in which the meek protagonist is subjected to such humiliations as a chastity device rigged with an alarm, a giant cactus that ejaculates what looks like curdled butter and, worst of all, the ignominy of placing second in a crucial baby seal-clubbing contest. It’s another thing – surely more enjoyable still – to watch a movie in which that protagonist is one of the key Western-world political figures of the 20th Century. As Mackenzie King, Dan Beirne is superbly naïve and earnest, a lone figure of staid sensibility in a world full of absurdity to the point that his jejune innocence makes him the most absurd figure of all.

Besides all the comic-erotic indignity, as brash and insistent as you could wish it to be, The Twentieth Century is also exquisitely designed. Rankin’s turn-of-the-century Canada, marvelously created by cinematographer Vincent Biron and production designer Dany Boivin, is realized as an artificial space of Art Deco sets against imposing backdrops. Exteriors are depicted as flat stretches of deep electric blue, interiors as dully lit stone caverns offering merely protection from the infernal chill outside, and everything appears terminally on the apparent brink of being subsumed by an endless expanse of ice and snow. It’s a striking, potentially distracting aesthetic, though perfectly integrated into the film’s stylistic tenor and not without an appropriate sense of humor – Winnipeg, for example, is depicted as a far-flung hovel, a few dingy streets offering the paltriest, dirtiest of vices and no more.

This is a film of boundless wonders across its swift 90 minutes, every moment enlivened by some lovely little quirk or another. Inhabiting its gorgeous, Guy Maddin-esque spaces is a cast full of fine actors; best of all is frequent Maddin collaborator Louis Negin as Mackenzie King’s bedridden mother, whose ripe dialogue includes such would-be iconic utterances as “I think my bowels may explode – you know how unaccustomed I am to happiness!” (That particular quote’s absurd brilliance is perhaps rivaled only by Canadian comic actor Seán Cullen’s outburst of “This is a state dinner! Do not vomit!”) With all the unbridled weirdness in The Twentieth Century on such an improbable vehicle for weirdness as the early political career of a revered historical statesman, this could easily have been a film of boundless affectation. Yet Rankin’s sense of humor is strong and unswerving, the efforts of his cast and crew united in the same artistic ideals, the creativity that pervades the whole thing just too impressive to overlook. It’s a film to give yourself into and a film that makes it tremendously easy to do so.

A Canadian curio packed to the brim with stylistic innovation and comedic excellence, with a superb cast and visual design. Definitely one to watch – film and director alike.
90 %
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