“The Twentieth Century,” a new film virtually screening via the Brattle and Coolidge, exists somewhere on the Venn diagram between midnight movie, fever dream, Turner Classics fetish object, and all-Canadian prank. Does that sound interesting? By all means. Does the movie go anywhere? Not really. Will you mind? I didn’t.
Shot by writer-director Matthew Rankin in a style that evokes early-1930s filmmaking and German Expressionist cinema with a chaser of absinthe, “The Twentieth Century” offers a cracked version of Canadian history, specifically the life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the country’s prime minister for much of the first half of the last century. In this telling, the young King (Dan Bierne) is prissy and power-mad, desperate to win the various competitions — leg wrestling, baby-seal clubbing, waiting one’s turn in line — that would cement his place as leader of a terminally polite country whose unofficial motto is “Do more than is your duty. Expect less than is your right.”
If you’re familiar with the films of Guy Maddin — another woolly Canadian fantasist blurring the lines between old movies and national history — you’ll have a grip on the artful lunacy Rankin is up to here. The sets are delightful Art Deco Tinkertoy landscapes, the screenplay delirious with subversion. After losing his initial run for P.M., King caves into his lust for the daughter (Catherine St-Laurent) of the all-powerful Lord Muto (Seán Cullen) and disappears into “the fleshpots of Winnipeg,” as one chapter heading has it, before ultimately ending up at the Vancouver Onanist Sanitarium. There are elements of Lynchian nightmare and echoes of the deranged 1982 cult classic “The Forbidden Zone,” including a disturbingly erectile cactus and the appearance of a male actor, Louis Negin, in drag as King’s Machiavellian mother.
“The Twentieth Century” lacks the demented, all-encompassing artistic vision of a Maddin movie like “My Winnipeg” (2007) or “The Saddest Music in the World” (2003), but it’s a welcome diversion and Rankin’s send-up of Great White North Great-Man pieties is at times inexplicably hilarious. This is a movie that includes the exchange “You know how unaccustomed I am to happiness,” “Shall I get you some horse tranquilizers?” and that features what may be the single most Canadian entrance line in the history of film: “I’m sorry I was late — I was sharpening my skates.”
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Written and directed by Matthew Rankin. Starring Dan Bierne, Catherine St-Laurent, Louis Negin. Available as a virtual screening via the Brattle and Coolidge. 90 minutes. Unrated (as PG: mild violence, smutty cacti, historical Canadian in-jokes).