CRITIPEG: The Twentieth Century

Plays at Cinematheque until Jan. 23, ★★★★☆

Matthew Rankin’s first feature-length film, The Twentieth Century, looks like Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music In The World and a Canadian Heritage Minute took acid and gave birth to a wombat in a powdered wig. This is to say, there are bizarrely familiar moments within this ode to the late prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, which is, at its heart, a satire of Canadian patriotism and a torrid trip through our national psyche.

Rankin’s film explores the quiet vexation and disappointment that characterize Canadian public life and politics through the rise of Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-reigning PM and the mealy mouthed centrist whose political success has inspired generations of ineffectual leaders. King’s quirks (as documented in his personal journal, which is part of Canada’s archives) included worshipping a series of terriers named Pat, regularly attending seances and communicating with his deceased mother and Leonardo DaVinci, among others, via crystal ball.

Rankin runs with the well-documented oddities of “Wacky Willy” and takes them to a whole new level, while offering King’s character a measure of generosity, revealing a tortured (albeit often humorously so) young man. Rankin’s King is narcissitically beatific, plagued by Puritanism and a healthy dose of kink (uncomfortable bedfellows) and completely under the control of his frightful, omnipotent toad of a mother, played brilliantly by Maddin regular Louis Negin.

The Twentieth Century’s trip down Canadian heritage lane has a nightmarish quality, made even more dreamy and disorienting by the phenomenal sets and art direction, which bring to mind local artist Simon Hughes’ glacial abstractions and a Caligari-esque expressionism. The overwhelming artificiality created by the glittering sets, lighting and sound remind the viewer that the film is a peek as much into the director’s imagination as it is a take on Canadian history, while also driving home the point that our “nation” is in fact a flimsy colonial structure imposed upon stolen land.

References to the British Empire’s strategic displacement of the Canadian population, spread thinly across vast tracts of land as a means to create a nation of meek, easily controlled citizens who are simply too far away from one another to organize themselves into any kind of coherent group that could potentially revolt against the Queen, are both laughable and troubling. Honorable mentions go to a Big Bird prototype who makes several appearances, the delightful gender-bending and the portrayal of Winnipeg as a series of muddy caves dripping with garbage and inhabited by crude vulgarians peddling obscene wares.

For viewers interested in a pleasant, cozy evening of cinematic entertainment this may not be the right film (see old boot fetish, impalement by narwhal and ejaculating cactus). For anyone, however, who’s in the mood for a deliciously discombobulating, scathing satire of our “nation,” I would definitely recommend this chilling romp through the turn of the last century.

Published in Volume 74, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 16, 2020)

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