With his perverse (and some might say perverted) look at the early life of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King, Winnipeg-born, Montreal-based multi-hyphenate Matthew Rankin proves himself far more than simply the artistic heir to fellow Canuck Guy Maddin. His low-budget, high-concept recounting of political life in the Dominion of Canada circa the turn of the 20th century is both satiric and scurrilous; the more familiar one is with Canadian history, the funnier it is. But even without prior knowledge of our neighbor to the north, it can be enjoyed for its combination of supreme creativity, jaw-dropping audacity and amusing tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Following its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, it was named best Canadian first feature and acquired by U.S. distributor Oscilloscope, which will release it in May.
Like Maddin, Rankin ransacks film, theater and art history for his visual style. Here, he creates a compelling pastiche of German Expressionism, early melodrama, instructional films, science fiction, disturbing midnight madness situations (decapitation by ice skate!?!), Monty Python and even Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company. Men play women and women play men, as what comprises upstanding Canadian manhood constitutes a major underlying theme. Moreover, clever animation, wacky puppets, painted backdrops and masks create a twisted, cult atmosphere as well as pay tribute to film classics, including “The Lady From Shanghai.”
The narrative unfolds in 10 portentously titled chapters. Naive 26-year-old King (Dan Beirne, “Fargo”) lives with his imperious bed-bound mother (Louis Negin) and hen-pecked father (Richard Jutras). His mother has long predicted his political glory, as well as matrimony with a beautiful blonde wearing a crown wreath braid.
At the Dominion School of Nationhood, King competes with other aspiring public servants to be the PM candidate in a hilariously absurd examination of aptitudes and bodily functions that would be prime Python material. There’s ribbon cutting, leg wrestling, waiting your turn, identifying trees by sniffing their stumps, urinating signatures, endurance tickling, butter churning and, more gruesomely, baby seal clubbing. Sadly, for the over-confident King, he ties for second with his nemesis, the macho Arthur Meighen (Brent Skagford). It’s his friend, the handsome Bert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja), who becomes the candidate and also wins the heart of the woman with the crown wreath braid, Lady Ruby Elliott (Catherine St-Laurent).
Meanwhile, King is burdened by a secret vice, a fetishistic obsession for women’s footwear. His masturbatory excesses are grotesquely visualized by an ejaculating cactus. Hoping to break his habit, he consults with a sinister Chinese doctor (Kee Chan) who hooks him up to some futuristic-looking torture devices. But even the doctor’s interventions can’t withstand the seduction methods of Lady Ruby’s deviant sister, Lady Violet (Emmanuel Schwartz), whose bon mots include such comments as “Canada is just one failed orgasm after another.”
When Harper and Lady Ruby contradict the Canadian Governor General’s condemnation of the Boers, who are fighting Mother England over the Empire’s influence in South Africa, King gets another chance to be the candidate. It all comes down to a tension-filled race through the ice maze where King’s jilted fiancée Nurse LaPointe (Sarianne Cormier) will once again prove her loyalty.
Rankin, who studied Québec history at McGill and Université Laval, knows exactly how to best skewer his protagonist and the era. His feature debut comes after 30 shorts, which have received awards at fests including Toronto, SXSW and Annecy. It’s pleasing that his talent and vision were recognized this early in his career and that “The Twentieth Century” gets a life outside of Canada rather than languishing in cult obscurity. It will be interesting to see what he tackles next.
The well-cast performers are perfectly in tune with Rankin’s intentions and hit all the right notes, from the leads to those in bit parts such as the tuberculosis-ridden orphan Little Charlotte (Satine Scarlett Montaz) in the Home for Defective Children and the overbearing Lord Muto (Sean Cullen). Achieving this uncommon project’s unique tone owes in part to the production and costume designers, as well as the team of animators and carpenters.