[Film Review] My Twentieth Century (1989)

My Twentieth Century poster

English Title: My Twentieth Century
Original Title: Az én XX. századom
Year: 1989
Country: Hungary, West Germany, Cuba
Language: Hungarian
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director/Writer: Ildikó Enyedi
Music: László Vidovszky
Cinematography: Tibor Máthé
Dorota Segda
Oleg Yankovskiy
Paulus Manker
Péter Andorai
Gábor Máté
Rating: 7.2/10

My Twentieth Century 1989

Hungarian female director Ildikó Enyedi’s ON BODY AND SOUL (2017), her first feature in 18 years, is the recipient of 2017 Golden Berlin Bear, so it is high time to reappraise her under-seen body of work, here comes her dazzling Black-and-White feature debut MY TWENTIETH CENTURY.

Capitalizing on the monochromatic mystique of a bygone era, the story focuses on identical twins Dora and Lili (Segda, a ), born in 1880, after their mother died and selling matches on a freezing cold night in Budapest, they are snatched away and lead separate lives. Their path will converge again in 1900, the turn of the century on the Oriental Express. Dora, a pert minx, dallies her way through men’s courtship and rooks them as much as she can, whereas Lili, a dour-looking revolutionist, carries on a bomb-attacking mission with steely resolution. Unbeknown to each other, both’s lives will soon be entangled with a mysterious middle-aged man Z (Yankovskiy, a magnetic cipher-like presence), a constellation of vignettes are engendered by alternating between Dora and Lili in their aggressive/passive sexual/power tugs-of-war with an inscrutable Z: playing hard to get, coquettishly libidinous, complete obedient, that is the gist of femininity’s unabashed duality, as a riposte to the sidebar, where the young Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger (played by Paulus Manker with gusto and ridicule), who would kill himself in 1903 at the age of 23, rants about his misogynistic take on women’s “whore/mother” dichotomy in front of a flock of suffragettes. In the hyper-surreal denouement, Dora and Lili finally meet inside a hall of mirrors (a motif almost runs to platitude), later arrives Z, ushered by a mule, a metaphor of men’s intransigence and if one recalls, it also heralds the twins’ separation at the first place.

The surreal touch is what makes Enyedi’s daring debut a novelty, picking up the baton from erstwhile Mitteleuropa New Wave standard bearers (Vera Chytilová’s DAISIES 1966, Jaromil Jires’ VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS 1970, to name a few within the knowledge of this reviewer), Enyedi interpolates these elements to impart her rumination on more abstract aspects: nature vs. human (the monologue of a Zoo-trapped chimp, a lab dog on the lam confronting a railway train, other topographic arrangements), cosmology (Greek chorus of glistening stars), and technology (Edison’s discovery opens and bookends the film, cinematograph, etc.), but this smorgasbord of ideas and conceptions fail to organically connect with the diegesis, a rookie indulgence for starters, often bite off more than one can chew – making every film as the last one. This approach does impinge on the cohesion of its central narrative, which could have been marshaled into a more scintillating doppelgänger charade. Yet, if eccentricity and diverse nuggets are what the filmmaker intends to chalk up, Enyedi has done a bang-up job!

Experimental but mesmerizing, compendious yet idiosyncratic, and particularly has a unique eye for lightning and mise-en-scène, MY TWIENTH CENTURY is a symphonic pastiche of cinematic tricks and an unsparing feminist manifesto beckons for a more effervescent reception.

referential points: Vera Chytilová’s DAISIES (1966) 7.6/10; Jaromil Jires’ VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970) 6.9/10.

Oscar 1989  My Twentieth Century


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