Oscilloscope Pictures have been responsible for distributing three of the best, most unusual and distinctive films of the year – We Are Little Zombies, Saint Frances and now, The Twentieth Century. To even begin to describe The Twentieth Century is going to feel like my mind is unravelling – it is utterly deranged and unhinged, but absolutely bold and unique. I haven’t seen anything this unusual since The Wild Boys (Bertrand Mandico, 2017) and like that film, this is one that does not attempt to hide its artifice. It is theatrical, heightened and features beautifully-designed sets. From the baffling and brilliant mind of Canadian writer-director Matthew Rankin, after The Twentieth Century you will never look at biopics the same way again.
Ostensibly, this the story of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister – William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served from 1921-1948 (with some gaps in between). The film covers him desperately trying to achieve the goal of becoming Prime Minister and the many obstacles he faces in doing this. It is certainly not a flattering portrait and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is not exactly purely coincidental, but certainly has been diffused through an artistic and comedic prism that makes for an thoroughly entertaining experience. Irreverence is the key word here.
Biopics that don’t slavishly follow the boring and predictable format that have come to populate the Oscar nominations are certainly refreshing and welcome. Comparing this to something like The Darkest Hour (the recent Churchill biopic) tells you everything you need to know about what makes a ‘good’ film based on a real-life figure. I certainly know which style I prefer. This year, we’ve already had Josephine Decker’s Shirley which also used truth as a playground, rather than something to restrict and tie down.
The story starts in Toronto in 1899, where Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) is suffering from both Daddy and Mummy issues. Mother (Louis Negin) is domineering – she is the one who has mapped out little Willie’s path to PM, including him marrying Ruby Elliott (Catherine St-Laurent), daughter of the Governor General Lord Muto (Sean Cullen). Father fulfills housewife duties, is never allowed in Mother’s locked room and tends to a puffin called Giggles. King undergoes a series of extremely Canadian tests, including queuing and baby seal clubbing to win the candidacy of his party. Unfortunately he loses both the candidacy and Ruby to Henry Albert Harper (Mikhail Ahooja) and he is tied for second-place with his arch-nemesis Arthur Meighen (Brent Skagford). Harper and Meighen are both real-life figures who crop up on King’s Wikipedia page, as is Joseph-Israel Tarte.
The sets appear to be based on Soviet propaganda posters, with their geometric designs. Many scenes look as if they were inspired by 80s music videos, with all of the smoke, mirrors, neon lights and the use of soft focus throughout. Silhouettes and shadow-plays are sometimes utilised, as is puppetry and other practical effects. The comedy seems influenced by the surreal absurdity of Canada’s finest Kids in the Hall and of course, Monty Python, not least in the casting of men as women and vice-versa.
As well as Mummy issues, King is also beset by a boot fetish addiction, which he attempts to cure in a variety of extreme ways, including an ejaculating cactus (another thing it has in common with Wild Boys) provided by the mysterious Dr Milton Wakefield (Kee Chan) and then via a machine which is like a reverse orgasmatron from Barbarella. Speaking of Barbarella, perhaps the highest compliment I can give The Twentieth Century is that it would have stood out in its weirdness even if it was released in the 60s or 70s, the heyday of avant garde filmmaking.
It is so rare these days for a wildly experimental art film to come along at all, let alone for it to get any kind of release. The Twentieth Century truly is one-of-a-kind and manages to be hugely funny and entertaining to boot (pun entirely intended). Everyone is thoroughly committed to the endeavour and Dan Beirne carries the film in his central role as King, who is filled with a perfect mixture of naivete and entitlement, like a delicately balanced maple walnut ice cream. I would dearly love more films to have even ten per cent of the ingenuity and imagination on display here. I can’t wait to see what Rankin does next.
The Twentieth Century is available to rent in virtual cinemas including Laemmle (LA) – click for full listing.