It is 1880, and as Thomas Edison unveils his invention of the electric light bulb to the world, twin baby girls are born to a young mother in Budapest. Their names are Dora and Lili, and the stars are looking down upon them. We can even hear the star’s whispered voices, and they will continue talking at intervals throughout the film. Dora and Lili are seven years old when they fall asleep together after selling matches during a snowstorm. While they are sleeping, two men descend. They each take one of the girls and disappear off with them in opposite directions.
For the next few years, the twin’s lives take very different paths. Dora (Dorothy Segda) becomes a good-time girl who uses her sexual charms to get what she needs whereas Lili (also played by Segda) becomes a bomb throwing terrorist, the complete antithesis of her lost sister. While Dora is stealing jewellery, Lili is bombing movie theatres. But, as fate would have it, they both independently fall into the orbit of a man known only as Z (Oleg Yankovsky). Z attempts to seduce Lili, but she will have none of it. However, Lili is more susceptible to his charms and also rifles Z’s wallet for good measure. Meanwhile, there are digressions aplenty. Nikolai Tesla hurls lightning bolts across a lecture hall, and a dog that has been wired with electrodes is released from the laboratory by the chattering, tittering stars. In the zoo, a chimpanzee tells Dora about his captivity, and a magical donkey appears looking like it stepped out of a Salvador Dali film. But, more significantly, we witness the birth of the ‘wireless telegraph’ as it bounces a message around the world and we watch a demonstration of the very first motion picture projector. And all the while the stars’ watch and comment like a Greek chorus, until finally Dora and Lili are united on the Orient Express.
Ildiko Enyedi’s My 20th Century is sometimes a frustrating experience because it often feels like the film doesn’t quite know where it wants to go, but in this particular case the journey is definitely more important than the destination and if you go with the flow and just enjoy how quirky and downright beautiful this movie is to watch, you’ll almost certainly be delighted by it. That is especially true for lovers of early cinema, because in many ways My 20th Century is a paean to the birth of movies, especially the tale of the electrode-studded lab dog who seems to escape into its own surreal cinematic reality. There is also something very silent movie vamp about the twin sisters, and credit must be given to Dorothy Segda for playing both roles so cleverly, drawing a clear line between Dora and Lili (although, not surprisingly, she seems to be having the most fun playing Dora). Second Run’s blu-ray presentation is wonderful (this is My 20th Century’s world premiere release on blu-ray) and includes a fascinating new interview with the director. Absolutely superb.
MY 20TH CENTURY (1989) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: ILDIKÓ ENYEDI / STARRING: DOROTHY SEGDA, OLEG YANKOVSKY, PAULUS MANKER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW