By Richard Ades
Years ago, I saw a film from Brazil that was filled with so many obscure references and in-jokes that no one from outside that country could possibly have understood it.
In much the same way, Canada’s The Twentieth Century is filled with references and in-jokes that no one could understand unless they had intimate knowledge of that country’s history. However, it’s also so weird and hilariously campy that ignorance of such matters is only a slight inconvenience.
Writer-director Matthew Rankin has taken a few historical figures from the turn of the last century and combined them in a tale that bears only passing resemblance to reality—fact-wise, that is. Appearance-wise, it bears no resemblance to reality, being a pastiche of expressionistic scenery and ancient movie conventions.
And, oh yes, it also features several characters portrayed by actors of the opposite gender, a detail they make little effort to hide.
The tale’s protagonist is Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne), played by a performer who may remind silent-movie buffs of baby-faced comedian Harry Langdon. Pushed relentlessly by his reclusive mother (Louis Negin), King has made it his life’s work to become prime minister. To that end, he enters a political competition that involves such odd challenges as underarm tickling, butter churning and clubbing baby seals.
First, though, he makes a play for Ruby Eliott (Catherine St-Laurent), a mysterious harp player whom he feels destined to wed because she’s a dead ringer for the woman in a painting his mother gave him long ago.
Unfortunately for King, he knows nothing about music and repeatedly refers to Ruby’s instrument as a “trumpet.” Even more unfortunately, Ruby already has a fiancé in the form of one of his chief competitors for prime minister.
But King’s biggest hurdle is one he tries to hide: He has an insatiable foot fetish, which turns out to be a huge political liability.
Other characters we meet through King include a smitten nurse (Sarianne Cormier) and a tubercular child named Little Charlotte (Satine Scarlett Montaz). Spoiler alert: Fans of Dickens probably know that youngsters named “Little” seldom have a bright future.
Those curious enough to look up the details will find that Rankin’s delightfully dark tale is like a Bizarro World version of Canadian history. It’s largely based on real people, but presumably they didn’t act quite so oddly as they do here. And presumably, despite what Rankin claims, Canada wasn’t really teetering on the edge of fascism, its political contest didn’t really involve clubbing baby seals, and its banner wasn’t really called “the disappointment.”
The fact that Rankin gets away with distorting the country’s history in this way and getting laughs in the process shows two things: (1) He has a great sense of humor. And (2) so do Canadians.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
The Twentieth Century (no MPAA rating) can be rented through the Gateway Film Center in Columbus and will be available on VOD platforms beginning Dec. 11.