The 1988 debut of Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi, My 20th Century (Az en XX. szazadom) is a delight, pure and simple. It is a glorious find and a film that rewards the viewer with its wit, its whimsy, and its romantic commitment to the medium. A first watch inspires a second but now tinged with the added wistfulness of wanting to see it in a cinema when you know full well that such an opportunity would be exceedingly rare. Perhaps it might inspire someone with the influence to accomplish such things to make that dream a reality. It's difficult to think of many films better suited to seeing in a darkened room on an enormous screen.
Perplexing yet joyously so, My 20th Century flits through space and time as it begins with Thomas Edison, more or less ends with Thomas Edison and lovingly respects the early days of the moving picture in the interim. In monochromatic shadows boxily framed in the Academy aspect ratio, Enyedi begins in 1880 in New Jersey as Edison is presenting the wonders of the light bulb to a rapt audience. The focus is quickly shifted to Budapest, where a woman, seemingly by herself, gives birth to a pair of twin girls named Dora and Lili (referencing silent screen stars Dorothy and Lillian Gish). The girls are next seen, as children, attempting to sell matches on Christmas Eve on what must be a cold winter's day. As they enter adulthood Dora and Lili are no longer together, either in proximity or intentions. They diverge, and the film largely plays the role of reuniting them in a decidedly unusual way.
Played by the beautiful actress Dorotha Segda, reminiscent here of Hanna Schygulla and Naomi Watts, Dora is glamorous and available while Lili takes on a more reserved air. The latter character is an activist committed to her cause. Resembling a spy, she boards the Orient Express train on assignment for the anarchist group†in which she's deeply enmeshed. It just so happens that Dora, too, is onboard the same train. They will soon share a lover, as well. The man, named here only as Z (played by Oleg Yankovsky), confuses the two and mistakes their very different personalities as opposite sides of the same coin. Enyedi resists overplaying anything so the encounter between Z and Lili comes off as odd, mysterious and almost innocent in its key misunderstanding.
The viewer is forgiven if†befuddlement sets in as there's quite a bit of disorientation at work here. My 20th Century never feels like a movie of its time. The aspect ratio and the choice of filming in black and white transport the seasoned viewer back two or three decades at least. Adding two characters played by the same actress only compounds the feeling of disorientation. But how charming is it to have this sort of situation? The pretty blonde splits herself in half only to somehow end up with the same guy through both doors. There's so much possibility for analysis here - much of which is at least touched upon in the illuminating essay by Jonathan Owen found in the included booklet - that it might seem awkward to opt for the more simple pleasures available. But, viscerally, what's the punchline and from what angle does it emerge? It's easy enough to wrap yourself around the glorious visuals and the strict dichotomy affecting the twins.
There are also these ridiculously fulfilling detours that Enyedi inserts with just the right amount of playfulness. Not to spoil anything but the best one is probably when a chimpanzee recalls how he was captured and put in a Budapest zoo. This might be one of the most satisfying flights of fancy in cinema. The way the tale unfolds is great, with the flashback showing a witless hunter amid chimpanzees who all run off save for the tale's narrator. The fact that it makes little sense narratively only enriches the experiences.†There might be some larger message at work or maybe it's simply a spike in storytelling. Regardless, it's brilliant and a feeling of fresh air when we've grown so accustomed to the expected.
Episodically, there's much more of interest in the chamber. Enyedi continually makes unorthodox choices, whether it's frequently avoiding showing characters speak while onscreen (instead using voiceover whenever possible) or having non-linear indulgences†emerge time and again. My 20th Century is a film you must see, perhaps on multiple occasions. It is heartening that we're able to discover works like this, and the attached excitement is deserved. This isn't a gamble, it's a sure thing.
Second Run makes My 20th Century its fifth Blu-ray release. Also available on DVD, the film is given a region-free edition by the UK boutique label. It's a gutsy move, to be sure, and one hopes that it pays off considering both the overall quality of the film involved and the knowledge that no other English language distributor would have lavished such treatment on this movie.
Video quality is strong, to be sure. It retains a film-like appearance, complete with various speckles and such that prevents it from being sterile and totally clean. I think that's okay. The little instances of dirt or scratches never deter from a viewing. It's presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and looks quite good in terms of contrast and clarity.
The Hungarian single-channel LPCM audio is surprisingly robust at times. Much or even all of the movie seems to have been dubbed in post-production yet dialogue sounds fine. Musical cues are healthy and strong, at times even more so than expected.
On-disc special features begin and end with a lengthy interview (27 mins.) by filmmaker†Peter Strickland of the film's director Ildiko Enyedi. Any additional insight is appreciated and we certainly get that here.
There's also a 20-page booklet inside the case which features an essay by Jonathan Owen. It's a dandy. Filled with references, insight, and general appeal to better understanding the film, the written piece is a must-read. It's augmented by credits and stills