“That’s no Doppelgänger, That’s my Sister!”
DIRECTED BY ILDIKÓ ENYEDI/HUNGARIAN/1989
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 9, 2020/KINO CLASSICS
Moving linearly for the characters but navigating abstractly through future-history, Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s ambitious and dreamlike debut film glides by on an expert rail of not-quites and almosts. The 1989 effort My Twentieth Century (Az én XX. századom) took the international film scene by surprise with its silvery black and white imagery and ever-so-mild kismet-fueled detours and symbolism. Now it is here for all on a lustrous Blu-ray edition.
Before the dawn of the previous century, Dóra and Lili, twin poor little match girls living as orphans on the streets of Budapest, came of age in very different ways. One fateful and presumably horrible night while asleep, they are whisked away by two different wealthy men; the decision of who got which decided with a coin toss. In the space between a time-lapse dissolve, they live out their separate and very different lives as the world changes around them. Nurture over nature is an unspoken reality of their destinies.
We catch up with them as young ladies, narratively made to defy, flout, and yes, tease the then-emerging Freudian notion of women embodying either motherhood or prostitution. Lili, we find, is the forward-thinking suffragette and revolutionary. With adult Dóra, she shares her face, her body, and her actress with her twin sister- but not her life. They’re both played by Dorotha Segda, (as is their mother, who only briefly appears) though there’s never any question of who’s who or what’s what.
As Thomas Edison (Péter Andorai), half a world away in New Jersey, zaps the world with his newfangled inventions that will steer the world into a more insular place, Lili, in a far more subtle fashion, helps to shift it into a place of greater equality and justice. Even today, 100 years later (give or take), there are many for whom those light bulbs haven’t turned on. The thing about Enyedi’s vision is, Edison seems to know that the work he’s birthed and rolled out with lavish spectacle is in some way lacking. As the marching band trumpets by with impressive glowing light bulbs affixed to their helmets, he turns in his chair and gazes to the stars, their wonder impossible to replicate, their tactility so far away. Though Edison in My Twentieth Century amounts to little more than poignant thematic texture and oneiric contrast, Enyedi’s strange, heartfelt anti-othering of the American icon cannot be overlooked.
But Edison, history tells us (if not the film), was also one for exploitation and thieving. In that sense, he also compliments Dóra. Having settled into the life of an opportunistic courtesan, this wayward twin has taken to the nomadic life of fleeting self-fulfillment and stealing, always combining the two. With her fancy dresses and come-hither glances, she shines bright enough to momentarily blind the morals of many an unsuspecting man. But of course, there’s a cost to this lifestyle, one which she herself remains unaware. As a result of her drunken carrying on in the ways of pleasure and deceit, she narrowly misses reconnecting with her long-lost twin. Will she get another chance?
Moving through the lives of both Lili and Dóra is the mysterious Z, an icy male with a gaze to match (played by Tarkovsky favorite Oleg Yankovskiy). Both all-business and seething libido, Z finds variant favor with both women even while unaware that they are two different people. After being seduced and robbed by Dóra whom he believed to be Lili, he reconnects with Lili demanding sexual reparations. Bearing guilt for something else entirely, Lili gives in. This after she attends a woman’s lecture by real-life Austrian philosopher and future Nazi inspiration Otto Weininger, wherein he fervently talks up the mother/whore dichotomy, prescribing it to all of womanhood even as most of the attendees file out in disgust.
My Twentieth Century is many things, but “easy” is not one of them. Amid its casual tragedies, humiliations and near-misses, symbolic observations abound. Much of this symbolism is commentary on its native Hungary, about its own history and attitudes that led up to the year of the film’s production, 1989- just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Right there, we westerners encounter several barriers of understanding. Or do we? While literalism is aloof and/or mystified, is far from non-affecting. If you fail to be moved by visions of a bedraggled laboratory experiment dog with electrodes attached to its head finally getting to run free in a field, you may have no soul. (Indeed, watching a dog run freely is one of the great simple pleasures of life). And despite any foregrounding of conventional narrative drive or even hardline logic, My Twentieth Century has no shortage of soul… as mysterious as it can be.
Sourced from a brilliant Hungarian restoration, My Twentieth Century truly shines as the darkly luminous vision it was always intended to be. Kino Classics come through with a nice assortment of special features, including a newer introduction by director Ildikó Enyedi, a subtitled Hungarian language audio commentary track with Enyedi and her very talented DP Tibor Mathe, a thoughtful booklet essay by curator and writer Dorota Lech, and finally a nearly thirty-minute interview with Enyedi by filmmaker Peter Strickland, which is credited to the overseas boutique label Second Run, which has previously released its own version of the film on Blu-ray.
The film’s poster says, “An enchantingly sensual tale”. It’s not wrong, though My Twentieth Century is a lot more than that, with several of its elements placing ahead of sensuality. Lightning crashes all around, and still the struggle of women must be confronted. With winning the right to vote we see a flickering of progress, though not globally. Edison meanwhile goes instantly worldwide with the unveiling of his telegraph, a marvel of a communication that has been long obsolete. For a time though, it mattered.
Enyedi, a most unlikely female filmmaker who emerged in a repressive society via a one-in-a-million shot to somehow make this film (thus launching what has been a fruitful career), seems to be challenging our own gaze as well as our perceptions of history and achievement; taking on a patriarchal narrative while also unafraid to muddy her female protagonists. My Twentieth Century at a glance may not resemble your twentieth century, but upon further consideration, we can find that that is in fact an ongoing history. And the challenge to dream a better world remains our own.