Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Review of My Twentieth Century

In 1990 Ildikó Enyedi made a Hungarian film about identical twins called “My Twentieth Century.” It played on two theaters in the US (at film festivals) and received its only theatrical release (limited) in the Czech Republic. Vincent Canby gave it a rave review in the New York Times and listed it in his top 10 for the year. Fox Lorber bought the rights and put out a limited VHS run. By 1992 the film was forgotten and it has languished in obscurity ever since

When I was in high school, I watched some Fox Lorber video that included a trailer for “My Twentieth Century.” I no longer recall what movie I was actually seeing, but somehow every image of the intriguing trailer stayed with me over the intervening years. Perhaps my total obsession with movies about twins and doppelgangers (oh, upcoming list idea!) influenced its strange power over me. I recently bought the VHS on eBay and watched it (after receiving two broken copies and eventually having Katie repair one) and found that it fulfilled my every overgrown expectation.

Anya (Dorota Segda) dies soon after giving birth to twins Dora (Dorota Segda) and Lili (Dorota Segda). As shivering Budapest orphans, they sell matches to pedestrians, are visited by a dream-animal and are separated by a pair of silent gamblers who appear only in a single scene. Fate contrives to reunite them at the turn of the century, on board the Orient Express. Though the sisters are now totally different (Dora is a rich, sexually-liberated sensualist while Lili is a reserved feminist anarchist) they fall in love with the same man, Z (Oleg Yankovsky). They remain unaware of each other, and he of their duality, until the films beautiful, ambiguous finale.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference in the film’s approach to cinema is its staggering narrative freedom. Director Enyedi, who also wrote the screenplay, rushes headlong through time and space, yet always has time for humorous, mesmerizing and provocative digressions. A Greek chorus of stars giggle and gossip about the terrestrial events, a lab dog escapes ecstatically elludes his experimentors on new years eve 1900, a trip to the zoo uncovers a monkey who tells of his capture, and Otto Wittgenstein shows up to propound his theory that all women are “either mothers or whores” (he gets soundly booed by his audience of suffragettes).

Most conspicuous are the vignettes that bookend the film, focusing on Thomas Edison. In 1880, Edison is participating in a dazzling light show to demonstrate the marvel of electricity, complete with a marching band wearing helmets plumed by radiant light-bulbs. Yet the inventor looks up at the stars with sadness, perhaps at the failure of his contraption to rival the wonder of the night sky. The stars twinkle and twitter to each other, noticing his melancholy but becoming distracted. “Look over there, in Europe!” “Where?” “In Budapest!” and there, indeed, we see the twins born. Twenty years later, as the film closes, the girls are setting loose messenger pigeons while Edison is unveiling his global radiotelegraph.

Like one of my other favorite films, “A Zed and Two Noughts” (1985), twins are used as a chance to employ unusual structural symmetries. Not only do Edison cameos form a framing pair, so does the appearance of a friendly mule. The system is set up in the birth scene, where their mother holds the sisters side-by-side and their names materialize overhead. Though coincidence keeps them apart for much of the film, Enyedi crosscuts them into mirrored positions and situations, finally reuniting them in a network of actual mirrors.

The film is, as one would expect, surreal and ethereal. It’s also quite confusing at times, but one hardly feels troubled by the uncertainty, symbolism and semi-randomness. It’s clear from the start that Enyedi is having too much fun, covering too much ground and bouncing around too many ideas to catch her breath, let alone to bother much with continuity. Her film captures the spirit of the age, with the impetus of invention, social upheaval and personal freedom. Who cares if it’s accurate: goggle-eyed spectators state hilarious misconceptions, quack sociologists shout silly pseudo-science and Enyedi herself suggests magical explanations where facts are too boring or too slow to serve her purposes. Even Edison seems to wistfully sense that his technological wonders and scientific know-how are a move in the wrong direction; a fanciful delight that illuminates reality at the cost of imagination.

Enyeda casual, encompassing brew of realistic, fantastic and mystic elements creates a modernist fairy tale where twins are divided and reunited, animals speak and cavort and countries like Austria and Romania are just “places that Shakespeare made up.” Enyedi’s tone might be playful, but her message is a clear celebration of feminist potential. Dorota Segda is marvelous in her triple role, and really communicates the wonder and happiness of women exploring the ever-widening possibilities of intellectual, political and sexual life.

Though Dora would seem initially unsympathetic (her inner monologue considers and dismisses men as amusing, occasionally attractive, trifles), her mixture of carefree pleasure and cynical savvy come out as bold, witty and enticing. Meanwhile, Lili has naivity and warmth to spare with political convictions that can get her to light a bomb and a humanist philosophy that prevents her from throwing it. A casual reading might spot shadows of Wittgenstein’s mother/whore dichotomy, but any in-depth experience of the film only shatters his simplistic theory into brilliantly multi-faceted crystals.

Visually, the film looks like almost no other, due in large part to the unusual lighting. It is shot in black and white on starry street corners, rumbling sleeper cars, darkened love nests and even a hall of mirrors within a labyrinth of black velvet and bare bulbs. It has all the darkness of a classic noir, but it isn’t used for harsh shadows and concealed killers. Rather, it serves as a backdrop for flaring lights, refracted steam and sudden close-ups.

There is a visual pattern of soft white lights caught in hazy blacks. Early on there is a camera shot of the moon, made to bounce on the bottom of the frame by carefully bobbing the camera. Edison’s lights, the ever-watchful stars, snowflakes on a Christmas Eve, matchsticks on a bitter night, and fuses on an iron bomb all help to polka-dot the compositions in high-contrast. The emphasis on things that glow without enlightening, people that recede and emerge from shadows and identities that are shrouded in both literal and metaphoric darkness, give the film an enigmatic, secretive feel.

Films like this tap into all sorts of inner spaces and I’m not surprised that it inspired my curiosity across a third of my life. Half the time I wasn’t sure whether I should try and crack the layers of symbolism, search for coded messages, or simply be seduced by the visuals and freeform narrative flow. I’m awfully glad I now own this film, because I’ll be watching it many, many times.

Walrus Rating: 9


Joe D said...

After reading your review I bought a VHS on Amazon for $1.98. I can't wait to see it! Maybe the Weinsteins will remake it as a horror film!

FilmWalrus said...

A word of warning: if you're luck is anything like mine, it will arrive with the magnetic tape broken. My girlfriend was able to mend one of the copies I got sent. You can find her summary of the task here:


I do so hope you like the movie as much as I did. Even if not, I guess you only paid $2.

Anonymous said...

Both copies we got were broken!

I think the whole batch must have been exposed to adverse conditions...

Good luck, though, joe! I hope you enjoy it!

Joe D said...

I'm an old hand at mending broken tapes, I'll let you know how it is when I get it. I vaguely remember seeing a trailer for this film when it was released, maybe at Film Forum in NYC. I really can't wait to see it. It sounds so refreshingly different and original! By the way I saw a really out there movie on TCM a couple of weeks ago. Louis Malle's Black Moon. It is wild, check it out.

FilmWalrus said...


I'll look into getting Black Moon. Malle is usually a pretty safe bet with me and the desciptions online sound amazing. I'll keep on eye on TCM, since the DVD seems to be about $35 with shipping from australia.

I'm still hoping to find a cheap copy of "Greaser's Palace," which you mentioned a ways back.

Joe D said...

Unfortunately I don't have a DVD or any copy Of Greaser's Palace, I'll let you know if I can track down an inexpensive one. By the way I know a lot of the people involved with G.P. Michael Sullivan who plays Lamy Homo just made an animated film called The Sex Life Of Robots. It's crazy. There was a bit on YouTube but it got taken down. I may try and post something, I'll let you know.

Joe D said...

I got the DVD and it was fine, except the subtitles were printed in a big black box that obscured parts of the picture. A great movie, so different. A real pleasure.

FilmWalrus said...

Hey Joe,

Glad you got a chance to see (and enjoy) this one. I tried my luck with another Hungarian female-directed film at SLIFF this year, but it had nothing on "My Twentieth Century's" invigorating originality and pep. I'm working on "Black Moon" and "Greaser's Palace" and I currently have a bead on both, so I'll let you know how that goes. Maybe I'll even do reviews.

By the way, do you have a site, blog or youTube I can keep an eye on?

Joe D said...

Yes I do have a blog www.filmforno.com

Joe D said...

I mean I got the VHS and it was fine! I really enjoyed Lili's costumes, all those incredible undergarments!

Joe D said...

I mean Dora's incredible undergarments!

FilmWalrus said...

Undergarments just ain't what they used to be in turn of the century Hungary.

Great site, Joe D! Katie and I both already knew of it, although we hadn't connected your signiture and site. I'll definitely be dropping by more often.

Fred said...

I have had the luck to be able to rent this film from my local public library. I have a question for all. In this film's soundtrack there is a section of chorus and orchestra from one of Guiseppe Verdi's operas. It first occurs when the twins fall asleep and are carried away, then at the end of the film where the twins discover each other. The music is absolutely magical and using it was a stroke of genious. Does anyone know which of Verdi's operas this music is from? I have searched the net for several years still to no avail.


James Gordon said...

There are 2 extracts from Verdi's Macbeth. The moderately-paced, rather jaunty female chorus is the witches (though you wouldn't know it!) after they have lulled Macbeth to sleep. This occurs twice in the film. Also, near the end of the film, the rather ominous, chromatic introduction to the sleepwalking scene, which seems to cast a shadow/add another layer of ambiguity to what we're seeing.
These aren't the only operatic excerpts. I also noticed a chunk of the overture from Bellini's Norma and the song 'Una volta c'era un re' (Once upon a time there was a king) from Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella).
You can debate the exact significance of these, but I'm sure it's no accident that all four pieces of music relate to strong female characters.