In Matthew Rankin’s 2019 debut feature, The Twentieth Century, the diaries of U of T alum William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, are deconstructed and put back together again in a hallucinogenic fever dream of endless Canadianisms.
In Rankin’s world, maple walnut ice cream reigns supreme, and the prime minister is elected through a series of games including ice skating races, peeing in snow, baby seal clubbing, and blind tree identification.
Audiences appreciated this deranged onslaught of Canadian identity, and The Twentieth Century took home the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) City of Toronto Award for best Canadian first feature film, along with three Canadian Screen Awards in 2020.
The film, though, resonates more as a critique of Canada than as a love letter to it. Us Canadians tend to play up our stereotypes as a method of distancing ourselves from our neighbours to the south. But by depicting Toronto as an impressionistic Lynchian void of miniatures and dialing up the surrealism to 11, Rankin feeds into Canadian insecurities to such a degree that we become overstuffed, reminding us how dangerous patriotism can be.
Just as Canadians tuck their hate away in an exterior of politeness, the film opens earnestly enough with King (Dan Beirne) comforting a sick child in a hospital. Then, in a rather clairvoyant sequence, as the child begins to violently cough up blood, King tosses a wrinkled up tissue at her and ignores her to instead stare at a woman playing the harp in a heavenly light.
The film continues to unravel from there — the woman turns out to be Ruby Elliot (Catherine St-Laurent), daughter of Governor General Lord Muto (Seán Cullen).
Though Lord Muto is based on the historical Lord Minto — who would have had practically no power as the governor general of Canada — the film uses his position as representative of the Canadian monarch to manifest Canada’s embedded colonial hate.
As Muto stands under a flashing red eagle resembling a Nazi hate symbol, he encourages the extermination of the Boers, calling them “the scum race of the Transvaal — half man, half elephant.”
The film then dissolves into a parody of propaganda, featuring flashing sketches of the Boers as elephants and large letters encouraging Canadians to unleash their fury upon the world. While this is going on, the film cuts to King masturbating into a shoe. As Muto’s speeches critique Canada’s imperial violence, King’s repressed sexual desires make it clear that Canada’s hidden darkness is present on the individual level as much as the collective.
The film continues to spin out its plot, and, even as the constant jabs at Canada remain funny, they carry with them a definite coldness. They remind Canadians that although leaning into stereotypes of being overly polite and inoffensive may be the easy thing to do on a day-to-day basis, the performance of these stereotypes by millions of people for over 150 years is not a kindness, but rather a selfish avoidance of responsibility.
Selfishness coming about through the performance of selfless acts is just one of the Canadian contradictions that The Twentieth Century highlights. Indeed, because it is so self-aware, the film casts doubt on everything it champions, from the narrative of King’s life to the very concept of Canada as a nation.
For instance, King was someone more praised for his policies than his charisma. This puts him in direct conflict with the concept of Canadians as being kind but relatively slow to get things done. The rest of The Twentieth Century’s Canada is then shown through these contradictory eyes, and there is nothing for the audience to hold onto when they cannot entirely trust King as a Canadian interpreter of the world around him.
On the level of the film as a whole, even as it seems to denounce much of its Canadian context through its darkness, it is itself participating in a Canadian tradition of film by entering into TIFF, being shot on 16 millimetre film, and building on the experimental-historical stylings of Rankin’s fellow Winnipegian filmmaker Guy Maddin.
In fact, when King visits Winnipeg, it is practically a garbage heap where everyone swears, sells heroin, and trades sexually-charged footwear. Though this is partly just a jab at Rankin’s hometown, it also plays into the idea that Torontonians often think Toronto is the only relevant part of the country.
I’ve no doubt that, if the film was set during King’s university years, it would present the U of T satellite campuses equally as ignorantly.
Finally, even as The Twentieth Century is a lively celebration of all things Canadian, it simultaneously seems to be poking holes in the concept of nationhood, thereby questioning the validity of the very Canadianisms it is built upon.
Through its lens, Canadian kindness is synonymous with Canadian darkness. With this view, the overwhelming politeness of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pandemic addresses may not be perceived as practical problem solving, but rather a contrast to the United States that feeds into Canada’s dangerously potent superiority complex.