Nothing can prepare audiences for The Twentieth Century. This balls-to-the-wall phantasmagoria of maple syrup soaked ridiculousness is unlike anything we’ve seen. The Twentieth Century is a Heritage Minute hepped up on goofballs. (Do you smell burnt toast? Yes, you do.) It’s a Guy Maddin movie with its knickers in a knot. (“Have a nice day!”) It’s an unabashedly patriotic odyssey through the lunatic fringe told in les deux langues officielles amped up with more gonzo weirdness than Andrew Scheer has role-playing with the missus on a cold winter’s day. (N’imaginez pas, s’il vous plait!) It’s the most riotously entertaining slice of Canadiana audiences have seen in years.
A cult classic is officially born in Matthew Rankin’s first feature film. The Twentieth Century delivers on the promise of his shorts. After Mynarski Death Plummet, The Tesla World Light, Cattle Call, and other essential oddities, Rankin ups his game with an astonishingly grand canvas. The film won Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF and was recently tapped for Canada’s Top Ten, and one can see why. The Twentieth Century dazzles as it gives one of the country’s singular voices the audacity to shine. This film belongs in every Canadian classroom!
Rankin invites audiences to enter a rabbit hole of Canadian history. The Twentieth Century marks the titular point in time at which William Lyon Mackenzie King began his ascension to the divine role of Prime Minister of Canada. If you think American politics make for good TV, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
WL Mack, or “Willy” to his compatriots, is a plucky square with sights on the crown. As played by Dan Beirne (Fargo), King seems destined to lead this fair country despite being an odd duck. The quack proves his prowess in all the usual competitions that gauge one’s Prime Ministerial abilities. Ribbon cutting, passive aggressiveness, baby seal clubbing, and peeing in the snow set him above the pack. (He probably had snazzy socks, too, but this film hardly has Trudeau, Jr.’s wardrobe budget.) King faces mad competition from aspiring Canucks like arrogant boob Arthur Meighen (Brent Skagford) and pretty boy Albert Harper (Mikhail Ahooja) for the right to rule. However, nobody carries the wide-eyed pluckiness that King brings to the fight.
The Twentieth Century is impeccably well-researched satire, or Rankin at list did a fantastic job of skimming the Wikipedia page. Sure, it takes a fuckton of liberties along the way, but it mostly gets the story right.
Rankin’s film is a geeky cornucopia of inside jokes and embellished half-truths laced with outright fictions. From King’s woefully sad love interest, Nurse Lapointe (Sarianne Cormier) named for his long-time confidant Ernest Lapointe to a tragic skating accident that decided Canada’s fate, The Twentieth Century is a playfully sketched tapestry of arcane Canadiana turned inside out.
The Twentieth Century is actually a lot tamer than a story about William Lyon Mackenzie King could be. After all, this Prime Minister communed with the dead. He had a bizarre relationship with his mother. He had a racist aversion to Asians (especially the Japanese). And he might or might not have been getting it on with the Governor General. (But aren’t they all?) Rankin pits King on a peculiar odyssey that includes jacking off to sweaty shoes. He has weird run-ins with a Japanese mad scientist who monitors his arousal. King buys lingerie for his mom at John Diefenbaker’s bra shop. With every beat, the film challenges the idea that Canadian history is a dull slog.
Canada doesn’t have a history to be proud of, so we might as well make it up. This film knows what it wants to be and it totally owns its weirdness. Rankin presents a hilarious feat of revisionist history for Canada’s tenth Prime Minister. Told with an ensemble that swaps genders at leisure, the film is a comical queering of Canadiana. (Most notably is the hilarious casting of Guy Maddin regular Louis Negin as King’s mother.) From effete lords to bangable “members” of Parliament to kinky Canucks to ejaculating cacti, The Twentieth Century sharply satirizes Canada’s squareness. The film even has a Machiavellian Lord (Seán Cullen, in a performance so hilariously over the top that one hopes the Screenies take note) and a regional rift with the Frenchies for contemporary resonance.
Rankin’s short films demonstrate a jolt of imagination and a shock for creativity. However, any potential hinted at within his prior works is amplified up the wazoo with The Twentieth Century. Told in a style mixes German Expressionism and Wes Anderson hipsterism, the film doesn’t hide its cheapness for a second. It is proudly lo-fi and DYI. Rankin creates a world that looks nothing like Canada, but resembles it in spirit. Full credit for creating this world of second-rate cutouts goes to the art direction by Dany Boivin, the cinematography by Vincent Biron, and deadpan hilarious performances by the cast. Beirne doesn’t miss a beat while carrying every frame of Rankin’s eccentric vision.
It’s high time that Canadians both laughed with and laughed at the collective lameness of this country’s history. Rankin’s film is audacious, wild, crazy, nuts, loony, and hugely entertaining for every minute of its proudly Canadian farce. Perhaps The Twentieth Century, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, is the film to unite a divided Canada.
The Twentieth Century opens in Toronto on Dec. 13, in Montreal on Dec. 20, and in Winnipeg on Jan. 11.