Blow Canada

‘The Twentieth Century,’ the year’s weirdest, funniest, most repulsive fake German Expressionist biopic about Canadian history

I saw The Twentieth Century movie. How to explain The Twentieth Century? First-time director Matthew Rankin based this film very, very loosely on the early life of Mackenzie King, who, for the lack of a better description, was the FDR of Canada, serving several terms as Prime Minister. But it’s not a conventional biopic. It’s more like a parody of a biopic, or a fever dream of a parody of a biopic. Unless the life of Mackenzie King actually did include a moment where a giant cactus ejaculated in his room while King was huffing on a used, sweaty workboot, I’ll assume that Rankin took some artistic liberties.

Rankin shot the film in washed-out distant color, so it feels like lost footage from the MGM archives. The angular, surreal, cartoonish sets deliberately summon up the best of German expressionism. The bizarre, sometimes inexplicable side moments resemble the hallucinations of David Lynch. And the fact that men play some of the female characters, and women play some of the male characters, in the most perverse ways possible, bring to mind early gender-bending John Waters projects.

Other write-ups of The Twentieth Century mention Monty Python as an influence, and you can certainly see it in some of the more absurd exchanges. But the whole thing feels extremely Canadian. More than any other film, The Twentieth Century resembles Guy Maddin‘s Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs, another Canadian indie that feels like lost footage from pre-code Hollywood. And some of the more absurd episodes in the movie–of which there are a lot–could pass for sketches on early seasons of SCTV. One of the characters, Mackenzie King’s father, shares his lunches with a talking bird in a cage. As a cure for King’s sexual perversions, a doctor, who operates a sanitarium in Vancouver, for some reason, bloats up King’s belly with an enema of “puffin cream.” You cannot make up this stuff. And yet Rankin did.

Directed by: Matthew Rankin
Written by: Matthew Rankin
Starring:  Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Catherine St-Laurent, Mikhaïl Ahooja, Seán Cullen, Louis Negin, Kee Chan
Running time: 90 min

I found this film very funny, though I imagine a certain type of Canadian who gets the inside jokes would find it even funnier. Rankin calls one of the movie’s ten chapters “Fleshpots of Winnipeg.” He depicts Winnipeg as a giant abattoir of sin that makes Oliver Twist’s London seem like Pleasantville. Vancouver is a deforested wasteland. In the film’s largest and most ironic touch, Canada itself is a mighty fascist empire that’s trying to conquer South Africa, run out of a nightmare Ontario that’s more like Hitler’s Berlin. Meanwhile, the resistance has headquartered itself in heavenly Quebec, presided over by a saintly revolutionary leader who’s a woman with a mustache.

All of that sounds perfectly disgusting and absurd, and it is, but Rankin has also constructed The Twentieth Century as a classical tragedy. Even as I found myself repulsed by the scene where hopeful Prime Ministerial candidates club baby seals to prove their political worth, and laughing out loud at several ridiculous exchanges that show Canada to be the most fascist country in world history, I also found myself rooting for weird Mackenzie King to reunite with his true love, a homely and good-hearted nurse who represents the soul of The Great White North.

This will not be a film for everyone. If you prefer conventional narratives, are adverse to the avant-garde, or can’t abide cross-dressing actors, you will enjoy this about as much as a case of Shingles. But it was a film for me. I watched it as a screener at home, as is my right as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic. I would have enjoyed seeing it at a film society or in the basement of an art gallery or at a serial-killer’s house. But even in non-COVID times, it might have been hard to find in those traditional indie venues. The Twentieth Century is pretty much the definition of a cult classic. If you are weird and like weird films, I recommend you find it somewhere. If you’re Canadian, you can stream it on Crave. If you’re not, you need to wait for your local art house to gift it to you. Say a prayer, like the cultish citizens of Quebec.

The Twentieth Century

This concludes my review of The Twentieth Century movie.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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