Montreal Nouveau 2019 Review: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Canadian History on Acid
Few Canadian historical figures are known outside of Canada (or really even within Canada). William Lyon Mackenzie King, our longest-serving Prime Minister, might be one of them (at least in English Canada), but even to us, he is something of a mystery. Or maybe more accurately, he is remembered as much for his interest in spiritualism and talking to his dead mother, as he is for marshalling Canadian forces during World War II or expanding our national autonomy.
Enter Matthew Rankin, a Winnipeg-born, Quebec-transplanted filmmaker, whose previous work in short films includes other biopics, such as The Tesla World Light and Mynarski: Death Plummet. Rankin has expanded his German Expressionist/Guy Maddin-esque/surrealist perspective to this feature length biopic of one of Canada's most enigmatic politicians. The result is both bizarre rendering of some pivotal moments in one man's life (and Canadian history), as well as a fascinating experiment in the biopic.
The Twentieth Century focuses on a few years in King's life, at the turn of the century, during his early years in government and the events around Canada's involvement in the Second Boer War. We meet our protagonist (Dan Beirne) as he visits a sickly child in hospital, to whom he promises he will win the election. The film follows these precious few years where many fateful things happen: he sees a woman, Ruby (Catherine St-Laurent), whom his mother (Louis Negin) has 'foreseen' will be his wife. He squares off against his rivals Arthur Meighan (Brent Skagford) and Bert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja), finds himself entrapped by the Governor-General Lord Muto (Seán Cullen), fights against the Quebecois idealism of Joseph-Israël Tarte (Annie St-Pierre), fends off the affections of his mother's nurse (Sarianne Cormier). All the while he must contend with a particular fetish known only to him and the strange Dr. Wakefield (Kee Chan) who seems to follow King everywhere.
This might sound a bit confusing, and indeed, while most of the basic facts are more or less correct, Rankin is less interesting in a perfect history lesson (he has called this film a 'Heritage Minute from Hell') and more about how we look at our historical figures, and more than a few jabs at the political processes of Canadian politics, how we decide what is 'Canadian' (and 'Québécois) and what is not. After all, shouldn't we have a leader who can tell the type of tree by sniffing it, win a game of wack-a-seal, cut a ceremony ribbon correctly, or skate through a labyrinth to plant a flag?
The use of Super 8 and 16mm film help create that 'lost footage' aesthetic, as if we are watching something that at once is canon and on the other hand we were perhaps never meant to see. But the landscapes that Rankin and art director Dany Boivin create is what brings the most fascination: set pieces in a Metropolis-inspired cityscape that is both minimalist and overwhelming in is exactness. A scene where King finds himself on a chairlift that takes him from Toronto to Ottawa in a matter of mintes (perhaps just a smart creative idea, but could also stand in for the ease with which Toronto politicians fill the federal ranks). A trip to Winnipeg is fraught with difficulty on a sea voyage and seems like the 'gritty' end of Canada that would seem more fitting for a John Waters film (have I mentioned the ejaculating, exploding cactus?).
Indeed, Beine's King, and Rankin's Canada, makes no bold statement to be triumphant. This is Canada as the poor neighbour of the mighty USA, and still the dominion of Mother England. As such, King is the perfect Canadian Prime Minister, a rather milquetoast man, keeping what needs to be hidden, hidden, while attempting to bow to every master. All the performances are amazing: everyone finds that level of avant-garde absurdism without every ridiculing whom they are portraying; and Rankin plays a little game with some gender-bending portrayals, both leaning into the absurdism while finding the right actors for the perfect roles.
This might be an odd piece for non-Canadians (or heck, even some Canadians) to understand. Best not to expect too much of a 'pure' or straightforward history lesson from The Twentieth Century. Instead, we should all biopics in the future are like this one: absurd, more than a little deranged, turning people's insides to the outside (metaphorically), examining the essence of this point in Canadian time, and playing with cinematic norms to great effect.