One doesn’t normally associate the Canadian national identity with living on the edge. Canadians are generally better known for their friendliness, their amiability, their—forgive the offense—passivity, whether justly or not. The bitter Arctic cold seems less to have chilled their hearts than warmed their spirits. Yet, outwardly, the cinema of Canada projects a different identity altogether. The films of directors like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Guy Maddin depict a cloistered world of pent-up perversion: sexual neuroses and violent tendencies spurting out across the screen in stylized outbursts. For such a supposedly meek and placid nation, it’s an odd, even contradictory picture to paint. But it’s an enduring picture, evidenced by two daring new features from emerging Canadian auteurs: Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor and Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century.
I’ve always felt a strange sense of tunnel vision in Canadian cinema, as though I’m looking at a culture isolated on a precipice, hemmed in by unseen expanses. It’s a sense that pervades even the gentler output of Canadian filmmakers such as Denys Arcand and Jean-Marc Vallée. This perceived narrow perspective makes sense—it’s not so much a tunnel as a corridor, perhaps, like the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor. This stretch of land in southernmost Canada contains less than 0.003% of the country’s land area, but roughly 50% of its population.
The barren, lonely, modest urban landscapes of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor reflect this narrow, constricted perspective. Brandon is, as you either already know or have surely guessed, David’s son; he shares his father’s interest in corporeal grotesquery, physical transformation representing mental transformation, and an unnerving, topical preoccupation with viruses. Brandon cuts deeper than daddy, though, if not (yet) with the same incisiveness then with a clinical precision that only intensifies the oneiric oddness coursing intractably through Possessor.
This disturbing horror/thriller follows Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin working for a shady organization that carries out its hits via remote cerebral link between assassin and unwitting host—in this case Colin (Christopher Abbott). Cronenberg charts a sci-fi journey from mind to mind, plotted along neural pathways but predictably expressed along physical routes. It veers off into an arterial journey, the narrow vessels containing the stuff of life—and death—in a larger body. The film has the feel of a grand sci-fi spectacle shrunk down to a dark, dingy miniature; its crude efficiency belies the potency of Cronenberg’s ruminations on the theme of a foreign invader corrupting a wayward soul in a poisonous society.
Perhaps Canada’s ostensible pleasantries are but a façade—an accommodating smile papered over the reality that all is not quite well beyond their borders, in their country at once curiously cramped and impossibly expansive. Those pleasantries, viewed from a cynical (though not unjust) angle have the distinct appearance of a specious panacea, an assertion of innocence to mask a latent national guilt. One normally associates the Canadian identity with whiteness, after all, not only of the snow but of the skin of its colonizers. Their invasion has poisoned the country from the Arctic islands of the north to the cities of the south. Pick a statistic regarding lifestyle, welfare, rates of death and disappearance of the country’s indigenous population—pick any statistic and you’ll see how fully the rot has spread. That national guilt inevitably bleeds into the art of Canada’s white filmmakers and their bloody, naked, tortured films.
Its directors assert, implicitly, that cabin fever has well and truly set in. The Cronenbergs have cornered the market on violent extremes and Egoyan has comprehensively explored the nation’s sexual deviances—his films often populated by sex workers, strippers, pornographers etc.—though the picture isn’t necessarily all so grim. Guy Maddin’s absurd, whimsical films illuminate a lightness in the Canadian cultural identity, albeit a warped lightness, as in his eccentric 2003 musical The Saddest Music in the World and his fabulously askew 2014 fantasy The Forbidden Room.
It’s an outlook shared by Matthew Rankin in his feature debut, The Twentieth Century. Rankin posits a strictly alternative, gleefully queer take on the early career of his country’s premier historical political figure, William Lyon Mackenzie King. WLMK would come to lead Canada for three separate periods in the 1930s-50s, serving as Prime Minister for a total of over 20 years. His story here, set around his campaign to become Canada’s Liberal Party leader in 1899, is dramatically condensed, his exploits radically skewed, Rankin’s portrait of his character thoroughly saturated with outrageous depravity. It’s a cross-dressed farce that feels wholly authentic to the Canadian artistic spirit yet wholly at odds with the stereotypical Canadian national spirit. Rankin’s thorough defiling is made even more perfect seeing as the character is one of that spirit’s principal architects.
Where The Twentieth Century most resembles Maddin’s work, however, is in its visual scheme. Rankin imagines turn-of-the-century Canada in abstract, imposing, expressionist tableaux: stark, square compositions creating dimly lit spaces amid a vast, strange set consisting largely of cold blue backdrops. His monochromatic aesthetics and use of inventive soundstage sets recall Maddin’s work quite pointedly—maybe deliberately. His view of Canada’s corridor of urban activity may be the most vivid view I’ve seen, imagining roads and paths as perilous strips of ground between fearsome cliff faces and bottomless ravines, all cast in either damp, matte grey-browns or chilly, unwelcoming blue hues. It’s the ideal place for queer, desperate perversity to flourish, and flourish it does! Rankin’s Canada is one of shoe-sniffing masturbationists, erection-detecting chastity belts rigged with alarm bells, and a furiously ejaculating giant cactus.
Certainly, Canada is far from unique in boasting such an improbably bizarre artistic output. Similarly prosperous, liberal, majority white nations as Denmark, Germany and, the most delightfully degenerate of them all, Austria have to their credit numerous offbeat provocateurs of their own, from Lars von Trier to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ulrich Seidl. Yet their idiosyncrasies are their own—to possess that ineffable oddness endemic to the cinema of Canada, the implication is that you must, quite plainly, be Canadian. Whether their perceived niceness exists to distract from a more deep-seated perversion or the perversion is sewn into the tedious, oppressive pursuit of politeness, like a concealed reservoir of psychological neuroses bursting out onto celluloid, the oddball results of its cinematic fringes are the same. It’s with utmost respect and admiration that I propose we hitherto consider the Canadians as their cinema suggests: as a bunch of wonderful weirdos.
Paddy Mulholland is a Belfast, NI-born, London, England-based film journalist of unknown age, sex and location. They compensate for the paralyzing pointlessness of existence by watching bad films, eating bad food, and developing bad inter-personal relationships. Find them on Twitter, at their personal blog, and in your worst nightmares.