Last week, the arrival of director David Fincher’s “Citizen Kane origin story” Mank on Netflix catalyzed yet another round in the perennial conversation about narrative biopics and their obligations vis-à-vis fact and fiction. Contrary to some initial assumptions, Mank is not a de facto adaptation of Pauline Kael’s largely discredited 1971 essay “Raising Kane,” which claimed Herman J. Mankiewicz as the “real” author of Citizen Kane’s screenplay. Nonetheless, Mank’s selective deviations from historical truth still seem to have rankled some observers, much as Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) did a decade ago with its copious fictionalized details and overall unflattering portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Of course, the same debates surfaced regarding JFK (1991) a decade before that, and Amadeus (1984) before that, and so on and so on. The tug of war between artful storytelling and historical accuracy – and the question of how much slack critics are willing to cut a filmmaker with respect to the latter – is as old as cinema itself.
In this light, one is tempted to regard writer-director Mattew Rankin’s gloriously bizarre debut feature, The Twentieth Century, as a droll 90-minute joke at the expense of the biopic form, as well as a finger in the eye of nitpickers whose conception of criticism begins and ends with pointing out historical inconsistencies. To say that Rankin’s film is ostensibly a biopic of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King is to presume that it ever had the faintest pretensions of accuracy. It is, in effect, a live-action cartoon, a deadpan fantasy delivered in the absurdist spirit of Monty Python and the distinctive retro argot of fellow Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. In Rankin’s imagining, King – who is often regarded as the nation’s greatest PM despite his reputation as a colorless technocrat – is a neurotic, shoe-sniffing mama’s boy whose starchy sense of propriety is outmatched by his pompous certainty that he is destined for political greatness (and by his compulsive, self-hating onanism). By the time the office of prime minister is filled by means of an “Upper-Class Twit of the Year”-style competition, the viewer may have an inkling that The Twentieth Century is perhaps not an especially faithful portrait of King’s early political career. (Events in this contest include ribbon cutting, standing in line, leg wrestling, and baby-seal clubbing.)
Indeed, it is evident from the film’s first scene – from the opening credits, even – that The Twentieth Century is up to something defiantly peculiar and unexpectedly intriguing. One would be inclined to also label it as unique, were Rankin not so obviously influenced by Maddin’s idiosyncratic filmography, what with its silent-movie aesthetics, self-conscious fakery, and grotesque surrealism. However, if Maddin’s more outré fantasias have the aura of late-winter fever dreams, Rankin’s feature is more like Drunk History filtered through the lens of German Expressionism and wartime propaganda films. Taking pages from Buñuel and BoJack Horseman alike, The Twentieth Century employs its surreal style for po-faced satirical ends, mordantly taking swipes at British imperialism, Québécois nationalism, and various other political and social movements. However, no one is savaged quite as ruthlessly as Canada itself, which is here caricatured as a nation of anxious milksops, nice-guy pushovers, and repressed weirdos. (In the film, the Canadian Red Ensign flag is nicknamed “the Great Disappointment.”) Much like the Weakerthans’ poisonous ode to Winnipeg, “One Great City,” it’s the sort of gleefully vicious portraiture that only a native son could muster (or get away with).
Set in 1899, the film follows the awkwardly earnest Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) on the eve of Canada’s selection of its new prime minister. His chief rival for the office is the simpering Arthur Meighen (Brent Skagford), who bullies King relentlessly with homophobic insults. (Again, this is all completely, ludicrously ahistorical, even in terms of chronology: In truth, King did not definitively enter politics until the Canadian federal election of 1921.) In the film’s reality, Canada is a British proxy dictatorship under the boot of the blustering governor general, Lord Muto (Seán Cullen). Muto’s favorite cause is whipping the citizenry into a nationalistic furor over Britain’s war against South Africa’s Boers (imagined in propaganda as devious elephant people). As it happens, Muto’s daughter, Ruby (Caterine St-Laurent), is the unrequited object of King’s romantic obsession, matching as she does prophetic dreams claimed by the candidate’s overbearing, bedridden mother (Louis Negin). Unfortunately, any chance King might have of wooing Ruby is stymied not only by his Oedipal attachments, but also by a shoe fetish so overpowering he is unable to resist the erotic allure of an odiferous miner’s boot.
If anything, this summary undersells just how insolently weird the plot of The Twentieth Century eventually gets, with its revolutionary ornithologists, steampunk chastity belts, and Goblet of Fire-style climax in an ice-labyrinth Thunderdome. (There’s also an ejaculating cactus. Don’t ask.) Ultimately, viewers’ patience for what Rankin is up to in his debut feature will be heavily contingent on their ability to roll with the film’s particular brand of sometimes-silly, sometime-rancid strangeness. It helps, certainly, that The Twentieth Century is pretty damn funny, although many of its jokes are so dryly delivered – and surrounded by such ornate absurdity – they don’t even register as jokes for a beat or two. Consider a scene where King journeys to Winnipeg, which Rankin envisions as a squalid purgatory of wretched hovels. (He kids because he loves, Winnipeggers.) A foul-mouthed, chain-smoking urchin approaches the politician and queries, “You want some heroin? Bare-naked ladies? Reasonably priced furniture?” Everything about this scene is so cartoonish – including the torrent of obscenities that follows – it’s easy to miss that the “furniture” bit is the funniest part.
Improbably, the film’s Jeneut-esque conception of Winnipeg might be its most realistic locale by default, given that various other settings around Ottawa and Quebec are often represented by flat backdrops that resemble Art Deco illustrations. Rankin composites his characters directly into these pointedly unreal locations, linking scenes together with various low-fi animated effects, many of which recall filmmaker Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette fantasies. This isn’t to say that The Twentieth Century is anything as approachable as a twee pastiche of a single retro aesthetic – the film is far too cracked for that. The striking set design owes an evident debt to German Expressionist landmarks like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927), but this is merely the starting point for a feverish collage of disparate influences ranging from Italian horror to psychedelic musicals. Cinematographer Vincent Biron’s images have the grain and diffuse glow of a 1930s feature, but the colors are equal parts Disney Technicolor and 1970s Euro-horror. Any film that can visually evoke features as diverse as Eraserhead (1977), Shock Treatment (1981), and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) is, at minimum, fearlessly committed to its eccentric vision.
Although Rankin is not above slipping in an image simply because he likes the way it looks in the abstract sense, there is ultimately an overarching method to The Twentieth Century’s oddball style and Dadaist plotting. Namely, the film proffers itself as the reductio ad absurdum of biopics that privilege the ineffable spirit of their subject over matters of historical fact. The Twentieth Century has been so thoroughly scrubbed of verifiable truth and so slathered in complete balderdash that any remaining resemblance to actual history is effectively incidental. Crucially, the subject of Rankin’s feature is not really Mackenzie King but the national character of Canada, which in the filmmaker’s conception is that of the reliable milquetoast, willing to assent to any humiliation with a polite smile. “Do more than is your duty,” the PM candidates earnestly vow. “Expect less than is your right.” The Twentieth Century might view Canada as a nation of buffoons, but that depiction is presented with the sort of lovable self-loathing that only a Canadian could muster.
The Twentieth Century will be available to rent from major online platforms on Dec. 11, 2020.