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‘The Twentieth Century’ Review: The most absurdly demented movie of 2020

There's no predicting how ludicrous this twisty account of Canadian political history comes to be. That's part of its charm.
Credit: Oscilloscope

What do a baby seal-clubbing tournament, Canadian nationalism and the wondrous visual allure of early-cinema abstraction have in common? Don’t break your brain: The answer is nothing at all. Which is why it makes complete sense that they’re all elements to be found in Matthew Rankin’s “The Twentieth Century,” a hyperactive political farce and synth-powered fever dream that effortlessly achieves its status as a movie of superlatives—even in the moments when it seems that that’s all it’s reaching for in the first place.

To be sure, absurdity has always been a welcome presence in the political theater of the movies, and a useful tool in carving out movies’ value in navigating the theater of politics. Even if the last few years of A1 headlines means that satirists like Armando Iannucci have their work cut out for themselves, they also prove that parody is as effective a comedy technique as it is real-time warning; there’s a reason the Twittersphere quickly embraced the “ⓘ Official sources say this claim is disputed” trend as a way of nervous-laughter enduring the no man’s land between Election Day and Inauguration Day. But when it comes to “The Twentieth Century” – an endearingly bizarre, grotesquely imaginative, unapologetically non sequitur jubilee that sometimes feels like the most perverted thing Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam never collaborated on – its instincts are more primal, and not just because it chronicles the bumpy ascent of a protagonist blinded by entitlement and rampant carnal desire. But also because the purposes of Rankin’s debut are more deeply rooted in an exhilaratingly unpredictable aesthetic.

“The Twentieth Century” unfurls across stunningly conceived sets of bold geometric design and colorful interdimensional fantasy (the ooohs and ahhhs juxtaposing the more WTF-worthy particulars of the narrative itself) to tell the tale of Dan Bierne’s Mackenzie King, a chipmunk-faced squire convinced of his destiny to lead Canada into the “dawn of the Extreme Age,” i.e. the 1900s. (In real life, King remains the longest-serving prime minister in Canada’s history, but don’t fret if you don’t know the facts. The movie pretends not to.) Confident but brash, and quick to wield a performative grace even in the presence of tuberculosis-weakened children, Mackenzie encompasses all the questionable qualities worthy of a statesman. But it’s recurring doubts about his ability to uphold standards of Canadian manhood that challenge his journey to power as much as they outline Rankin’s overlapping ideas of nationalistic pride and fatalistic impulse.

In a movie that’s impossible to compartmentalize, the writer-director’s main intentions are easy to parse. There’s a plot weaving together the various strands of “The Twentieth Century,” sure, but following the particulars shouldn’t be the audience’s motivation so much as ogling at the hilarious attractions and increasingly maniacal touches, and investing in whether the movie can sustain the energy at all. This is a mercilessly weird film, sometimes to glorious results. It’s also unlike anything else you’ll have seen or will see this year.

Plenty of comedy out there that prides itself on nuclear-powered exaggeration is successful at yielding guffaws and recoils in equal measure; “The Twentieth Century” wonders if it can’t stimulate other senses at the same time, and in rapid-fire fashion. One of the movie’s early standout sequences is a demented montage of challenges (or “aptitude tests”) to determine a worthy leader, and the tasks range from squirmy to cheeky to barbaric. Mackenzie’s father is buddy-buddy with a puppet parrot who can speak French. Regal dining rooms appear as if characters have entered the Death Star. And the thing we notice before all this is a fuzzy, aged quality to the picture that makes “The Twentieth Century” feel like an exhumed artifact. There’s never any gauging where the movie will go next; its creativity feels boundless, especially in the first half. It’s even better that Rankin synergizes creativity with depravity. Just wait until you see what becomes of that ominous cactus looming in the corner of the room.

Bierne, who spent the better part of the last decade in short films and on the small screen, is off-puttingly good at playing a character that that isn’t deserving of our sympathies, and yet who still makes us wonder about where it is he derives his gilded sense of Canadian messianism from. “The Twentieth Century” doesn’t bother with backstory (God forbid we discover the origins of Emmanuel Schwartz’s creepy Lady Violet, one of the movie’s many examples of men playing women for no discernible reason other than to keep us off-guard), but Bierne’s performance is still memorable enough that he doesn’t drown in the cadre of second-tier characters that are as varied as the actors playing them are committed. Among the most memorable is the aforementioned Lady Violet, but it’d be a crime to ignore Catherine St-Laurent as Ruby, the apple of Mackenzie’s misdirected eye; Kee Chan as the gleefully threatening Dr. Milton Wakefield, enlisted to help Mackenzie control his overeager physical yearning; and Louis Negin, suiting up in wig and flowing garments to play Mackenzie’s bed-ridden mother. Like I said, the movie is weird.

Credit: Oscilloscope

For how ambitious an expedition into the chaotic heart of political man as his debut is, Rankin’s prioritizing aesthetic zanines over finely calibrated drama results in the finale’s abrupt arrival—a tidying up that rings of the filmmaker knowingly ending Mackenzie’s hero’s journey for upside-down times at a point when our being amused by his constant failures have reached a boiling point. Whatever pity there is to be had for Bierne’s scrawny heir comes from a natural understanding of him as protagonist more than it does from the writing; and yet, the satisfying tinge of exhaustion we feel makes us wonder how the character can believably hold his ground in a world that continues to fire crazed aptitude tests at him like a gatling gun firing tomatoes at the stage.

In that regard, Mackenzie is perhaps an avatar for humanity’s crazed willingness to navigate a twisty sense of normalcy that likely will be a source of scholarly amusement and cautionary reference in the decades to come. Some of the “The Twentieth Century’s” wildest flourishes don’t just defy convention; they embed strangeness in its very DNA, simultaneously daring the audience to look away while suggesting that the only possible way to examine history is through the lens of history as an object inevitably deformed by everything that has occurred since, thus erasing any chance of it being retold without blemish of agenda or ideological imperative. Thematically, that’s about as far as “The Twentieth Century” extends its hand. But it doesn’t make the timeliness for American audiences any less potent, nor, I’m sure, the in-the-door humor for Canadians any less majestic to witness.

"The Twentieth Century" is not rated. It opens in select theaters Friday. 

Starring: Dan Beirne, Catherine St-Laurent, Louis Negin, Sarianne Cormier

Directed by Matthew Rankin