Winnipeg, Canada, has produced more than its share of strange and singular filmmakers. Guy Maddin is likely the most well-known, but Manitoba’s capital has also issued forth George Toles (Maddin’s frequent screenwriter), John Paizs (writer/director/star of the unclassifiable “Colour Crime Movie” Crime Wave), the Astron-6 film collective (makers of Manborg and The Editor), and Nia Vardalos. And to their ranks we can now add Matthew Rankin, who has followed up a passel of visually inventive shorts with his first feature, The Twentieth Century.
Taking inspiration from – and a great many liberties with – the life and political career of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the tenth Prime Minister of Canada, Rankin sets his film on the cusp of the 20th century, when the very fate of the country hangs in the balance. Using minimalist sets and expressionistic backdrops, Rankin paints a starkly surreal portrait of the country’s major metropolises. There’s Toronto, the industrialized seat of power where aspiring politicos go to school to learn the ins and outs of governing such a passive-aggressive nation; Quebec, the land of peace and harmony, where residents and visitors alike ice skate everywhere; the “fleshpots” of Winnipeg, a veritable wasteland where all manner of kinks and sexual hang-ups are catered to; and Vancouver, where deviants go, paper bag on head, to be purged of their unnatural desires. Of course, that’s the only kind Mackenzie King (Daniel Beirne) appears to have since he’s disconcertingly close to his mother (played by Maddin regular Louis Negin in drag), whose visions of his political ascension have driven him all his life, and can only achieve sexual release while huffing women’s shoes.
To create Canada’s varied landscapes on a tiny budget, Rankin employs all manner of old-school techniques including forced perspective, animation, and matte paintings and backdrops. (An accomplished artist, he storyboarded every shot so his crew knew precisely how much to build to achieve the effects he wanted.) His interior sets are also highly stylized, from King’s mother’s bedchamber, with its curtained four-poster bed and multitude of locks on the door to keep her husband out, to the Dickensian tuberculosis ward where King visits a sickly little girl who believes fervently in his dream of becoming Prime Minister, to the Onanist Sanitarium of the sinister Dr. Wakefield (Kee Chan), whose questionable treatment methods border on the medieval.
Throughout, Rankin indulges in absurdist imagery like the phallic cactus King is given early on to remind him to remain pure of body in the bedroom (when he doesn’t, its tip erupts like, well, exactly what you think) and the shady moneylender with a cactus for a hand who ruins his father. And when Canada gets dragged into the Boer War by the militaristic Lord Muto (Seán Cullen), who just so happens to be the father of the woman King has fallen in amour fou with, naturally the enemy is depicted with elephant faces. In truth, there are so many bizarre elements at play in The Twentieth Century that to list them all could make it seem impossibly overstuffed and incoherent. (I haven’t even mentioned the baby seal clubbing competition or the betrothal ceremony that involves guiding your blindfolded fiancée across an ever-shifting ice floe only by the sound of your voice.) However, Rankin’s tight control of every aspect of his production means it all winds up being of a piece. A deliriously odd piece, to be sure, but a piece nonetheless.
(Screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival; U.S. release by Oscilloscope Films TBA but will include Trevor Anderson’s short Docking, which is also worth your time. )