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My 20th Century
It is winter in the 1880s in Budapest, and two twin girls, Dora and Lili, are selling matches on the street to try and survive. They pass out for the evening, and two businessmen find the girls. They flip a coin, and each man takes one girl, off to live wildly disparate lives. Dora (Dorota Segda) is the carefree one, living a posh life hustling gullible rich men out of their money, and luring them into bed for her own pleasure. Lili, meanwhile, has become a revolutionary, working on a plot to bomb a the minister of the interior. Neither seems to dwell much on their missing sister, wrapped up as they are in their own pursuits. In the end, they find an unconscious link in the form of Z (Oleg Yankovsky), a businessman who is entranced by the inventions of Thomas Edison, and who falls in love with both women, without knowing they are different people.
My Twentieth Century is an enchanting, somewhat unclassifiable Hungarian oddity: a fairy tale laced with a feminist streak, shot in gorgeous black-and-white and styled after films from the silent era, centered around an incredibly charming performance by Dorota Segda (dubbed by Eniko Eszenyi). It was the Hungarian submission for the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and yet it is not a movie I suspect many people have heard of or remember 30 years later. Thankfully, Kino Lorber has commissioned a brand new 4K remaster of the film and presented it on Blu-ray in America in a very nice new edition, which will hopefully allow this odd, poetic little film to be seen by a much wider modern audience.
The skill with which first-time filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi and her director of photography, Tibor Mathe, are able to evoke the silent era is quite impressive. While watching the film, it is very easy to forget that the movie is only 30 years old and still basically a contemporary movie, because the production design, costume design, and the beautiful look of the film so effectively evoke something that is closer to 80 or 90 years old. There is a simplicity to the blocking -- often static and from a wider angle, to get two characters and an entire set in a single frame -- that really helps sell the effect (not to mention, as an American, it helps that the film is not stocked with overly familiar faces). The film is set between Edison's inventions of the lightbulb and the dictaphone, and as such light plays an important part in the look of the film. An opening scene involving a lit-up tree and marching band is gorgeous in the way it utilizes each shade of light and shadow, and that approach is continued throughout the film, as Enyedi moves from locations as disparate as a dark steamer compartment to an icy field in the middle of nowhere, lit only by the stars.
The film's story is sprawling and sometimes erratic; what really drives the movie is the joy of watching Dora and Lili live their separate lives, and overall portrait Enyedi paints of these two women. In one scene, Lili attends a lecture by a chauvinist scientist (Paulus Manker), who says he believes women should have equal rights, including the right to vote, then turns around and lays out the old-fashioned "Madonna versus whore" argument, arguing that women are irrational and serve no purpose beyond the sexual. Dora and Lili appear to be an attempt to deepen and push back against the simplicity of those archetypes, with Dora finding just as much genuine fulfillment in her life of pleasure as Lili does in rejecting social norms and committing to her cause. To his credit, despite his belief that Dora and Lili are the same person, Z seems to respect both women equally, sucked in by Dora's carefree sexuality and intrigued by Lili's commitment to the cause (even when it means she will reject him).
As with any actor playing a dual role, Segda makes it easy to tell which of the two women is on-screen at any moment, with subtle differences in the look and attitude of each character. Even though she is dubbed, the performance really rests on Segda's eyes, which convey so much of her two characters' differing energies. In Dora, there is the happiness of a woman who is in charge of her own desires and uninterested in adhering to social norms, and in Lili, we see the determination of someone who sees injustice and feels strongly that something must be done about it (even if Lili is, at heart, a pacifist). It is Z who appears to be most fascinated by Thomas Edison's inventions, and yet Dora and Lili feel more connected to them: a luminous light, and the possibilities of a future where humans the world over are able to connect with one another.
My Twentieth Century arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Classics with a black-and-white design that matches the film, with the addition of some pink highlights. The front image is the very nice design created for Kino Lorber's theatrical rollout of the 4K master, with both sisters featured around the title with some bonus images beneath of a man and a donkey. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is a booklet featuring an essay by Dorota Lech.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.37:1 1080p AVC, this brand-new 4K master impresses in terms of clarity and fine detail. As Enyedi discusses in the interview and commentary, the film was shot on a special film stock that was less sensitive to light, to better evoke the films of the 1930s. As a result, My Twentieth Century has what I would describe as a compressed spectrum of grays and blacks. This allows Enyedi and cinematographer Tibor Mathe to work with more subtlety in crafting details in shadows, with the trade-off being that the limited contrast limits the depth of the image, which has a tendency to appear flat. Nonetheless, it is abundantly clear that this is a new scan of the film, offering outstanding texture and fine detail. Sound is a Hungarian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 that sounds very good. The film is largely dialogue and music without many stylistic flourishes, although a show of Edison's lightbulbs that involves dancers and saw music (I thought it was a theremin, but Enyedi identifies it as a saw being played with a bow on the commentary) is very striking. English subtitles are also included.
For this edition of My Twentieth Century, Kino has commissioned a brand-new audio commentary by director Ildiko Enyedi and director of photography Tibor Mathe, which is in Hungarian with English subtitles. Naturally, they discuss the challenges of nailing the look of the film and the influences they were drawing on in terms of the style, as well as a wide range of anecdotes about getting the film made, including how Yankovsky was convinced of Enyedi's skill as a director, the fact that Segda's performance is dubbed, and more. A very worthwhile commentary track.
An original theatrical trailer for My 20th Century is also included.
My 20th Century is a fasincating, poetic film that looks and sounds fantastic on Kino's new Blu-ray, and which is ripe for rediscovery. Highly recommended.
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