▶ The Twentieth Century: the Epic of Mackenzie King as Recounted in Ten Chapters is streaming on Mubi from 15 February.
A (heavily) fictionalised account of the early political career of William Lyon Mackenzie King, three-time prime minister of Canada, The Twentieth Century is a feverish hallucination of emotional repression. Set during the Canadian prime ministerial election of 1899 (at which point the real King had yet to begin his career in politics), the film features a cast of actual historical figures mutated beyond recognition. The British aristocrat and governor-general of Canada Lord Minto here becomes the imperialist-fascist dictator Lord Muto, who is set on defeating Joseph-Israël Tarte, a real-life Québécois leftist political leader who here is hatched from a giant egg.
As Lord Muto and Tarte battle for election victory, the young Mackenzie King is an easily-influenced accomplice. Throughout the film his political affiliation shifts to match his current love interest: his infatuation for Muto’s British nationalist daughter Ruby is displaced by French-Canadian Nurse Lapointe, who introduces King to Tarte’s utopian ideals.
One particularly apocryphal addition to King’s history is an obsessive fetish for women’s boots; his deeply felt shame for this form of sexual desire is symbolised by an ejaculating cactus in the corner of his childhood bedroom, which eventually decomposes into a festering pile of sludge.
Rankin’s aesthetic influences are remarkably varied but never messily combined: the angular sets representing the snowy Canadian landscape are pure German expressionism; Lord Muto’s totalitarian rallies combine Orwell, Riefenstahl and Soviet constructivism in a megamix of megalomania; the humour is Monty Python meets The Mighty Boosh, and the tone deliriously absurdist whilst simultaneously mimicking the colonialist ‘objectivity’ of Pathé newsreels. The approach may sound scattergun but the resulting work is intricately and carefully crafted, right down to the scuzzy graininess of the 16mm and super 8 film stock.
The Twentieth Century will not be to everyone’s taste but for fans it is destined to become a cult classic. With delightfully memorable dialogue, including King’s catchphrase (“Sure as a winter’s day in spring”) and repeated references to “upstanding Canadian members”, this is a film that will inevitably leave a legacy of raucous quote-along midnight screenings.
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