Clearly indebted to the stylings of Guy Maddin, The Twentieth Century unfortunately feels merely mannered rather than touched by any genuine madness.
In the Canada of The Twentieth Century, Winnipeg director Matthew Rankin’s gonzo historical reimagining of the nation’s late 19th century history, disappointment reigns supreme. (“Expect less than is your right,” goes one of the fictional Canadian oaths that’s recited before an official banner of Disappointment.) Telling a (quite literally) perverted history of the rise of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the film might seem like an improbable selection for TIFF’s Midnight Madness program; however, it conforms to the negative expectations of the section more than one might expect. Comparisons to fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin are inevitable, as both share an evident interest in lost and/or defunct film forms, artificial staging, and wild humor. An early sequence where candidates for a political nomination are put through various “tests of leadership” — ribbon cutting, leg wrestling, and seal clubbing, among others — immediately recalls the “four trials of the Red Wolves” scene in 2015’s The Forbidden Room.
To say that The Twentieth Century is a significantly lesser achievement than Maddin’s film, however, would be a gross understatement. Not always easy to tease out, the difference seems to be that the incongruous, borderline surreal turns of Maddin’s singularly fecund oeuvre feel touched by genuine madness, whereas Rankin’s film registers as merely mannered — filled with the coruscating energy of his shorts (most recently The Tesla World Light), but mostly absent of a cogent reason for being. That said, there’s no question that the director has ample technical facility (a climactic skate through a maze of light and mirrors is a visual highlight) and his enduring commitment to a blatantly artificial, uncommercial aesthetic puts him above many a Canadian filmmaker. There’s ample cause for disappointment, then, when it comes to The Twentieth Century. But there’s also good reason to expect more from Rankin’s next film.
Originally published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 4.