If “satire,” as the playwright/wag George S. Kaufman famously observed, “is what closes Saturday night,” then what are the possibilities of “The Twentieth Century?”
It’s a surreal, expressionistic satire, a camp vulgarization of history. And Hell’s bells, it’s CANADIAN history. “Closes Saturday afternoon?”
Writer-director Matthew Rankin works the Guy Maddin (“The Saddest Music in the World”) side of the cinematic street in this furiously strange riff on the rise of Canada’s dominant political figure of the last century, William Lyon Mackenzie King, or as the syrup-slurping classes to the North sometimes call him, WLMK.
No, I’m not making that up. But Rankin, looking at the gaps in King’s half-century-spanning public career, noticed what is known (white supremacist, a bit late figuring out Hitler, into the occult, never married) and plunged over a cliff in this fanciful, fantastical, stylized and almost totally fictional spoof of a figure who towers over modern Canadian history.
Queen Victoria is quoted, summing up Rankin’s maple-leafed native land — “In happy days as in sad, disappointed you shall be.” And if she never said it, and there’s no such place as “Disappointment Square” in Toronto or Ottawa, more’s the pity.
“May the disappointment keep us safe!”
This is Canadian comedy at its loopiest, Second City on Acid — bawdy, transgressive and transgender, and filmed on digitally-augmented sets of serene, expressionistic beauty — all angles and colors, triangular stage monoliths in front of painted (digitally rendered) backdrops.
The story compresses King’s formative years into a blur of failed romance, a kinky shoe fetish, bullying by his political rivals and a reputation for do-gooderism that Rankin ridicules to death.
The “spineless milksop” is played Dan Beirne, his domineering, sickly husband-dismissing mother by Louis Negin (Dame Edna’s…brother?), his political and moral role-model and ideal, the angelic and self-sacrificing politico Bert Harper by Mikhaïl Ahooja and the string-pulling Royal Governor General Lord Muto (His real title was Earl of Minto) by Seán Cullen.
Rankin has characters compete for power via a reality-TV worthy series of “competitions” — ribbon cutting (look “statesmanlike”), IDing logs by tree scent and a whack-a-mole game in which the moles are “baby seals,” to show how you identify with “the demented inbreds” who go for that sort of thing.
King visits a tubercular child in the Hospital for Defective Children for inspiration and motivation.
“I happen to believe that politics is about building a better world,” he says. “Help those that cannot help themselves” was the real King’s motto.
This King might marry one of two women, the harp-playing Teutonic goddess and Boer War fanatic Ruby (Catherine St-Laurent) or French Canadian Nurse LaPointe (Sarianne Cormier). The “Wedding Rituals of Toronto” with their “matrimonial sapling” and walk across a (moving, painted floor) ice-filled river is quite the test for true love.
Sexual frustration and implied perversion is treated by Dr. Milton Wakefield (Kee Chan). Milton Wakefield is a modern day politician who is still living, here imagined as a turn of the 20th century sanitarium doctor — and Asian.
The look of this “Century” is dazzling, and the off-the-wall inventiveness impresses — for a while.
But man, does this farce hit the wall or what? The frenetic early scenes in this biography in “ten chapters” lapse into the doldrums before the halfway mark. The zingy lines become fewer and farther between. And the performances, uneven in their comedic effect, run out of gas as well.
Full disclosure, I was never a huge Guy Maddin fan, and he did more wholly-realized versions of this sort of spoof back before digital effects made it all a tad easier.
I’m inclined to cut “The Twentieth Century” slack for sending me on a deep Wiki dive into Canadian history, and the visual inventiveness and perverse camp of it all. But the politics are murky, the satire muddier.
Maddin got there first, and his movies didn’t feel this gassed for the last half hour or more.
MPA Rating: unrated, profanity, sexual imagery
Cast: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Catherine St-Laurent, Louis Negin, Brent Skagford, Mikhaïl Ahooja, Seán Cullen
Credits: Scripted and directed by Matthew Rankin. An Oscilloscope Labs release.
Running time: 1:30