QUITE UNINTENTIONALLY, Ildiko Enyedi's "My Twentieth Century" demonstrates the importance of a good story in a film. The movie doesn't really have one, but this shortcoming, which keeps the Hungarian film unmistakably shy of greatness, is its only fault.
Enyedi's first feature, which took the Camera D'Or at Cannes in 1989, is abundant with originality. A beautifully assembled collection of black and white images, it bounds along with the kind of unhampered, lively confidence only an impassioned novice could pull off.
Just about anything goes in this surrealistic, quasi-feminist (and witty) tract on the 20th century: Thomas Edison introduces the lightbulb in Menlo Park, N.J., in 1880. A male scientist delivers a harebrained treatise about women's amorality and spiritual incompleteness before the outraged Union of Hungarian Feminists. Two cosmic blobs of light hang over the earth, conversing in chorus-like, interplanetary dialogue. A chimpanzee in a zoo narrates, with wistful irony, the story of his unfortunate capture in the jungle . . . .
The human plot, which vaguely links these disparate elements, is where the problem lies. It's a saga about twin sisters Dora and Lili -- both played by Polish actress Dorotha Segda -- who are separated at a tender age when two strangers (working separately) apprehend them. Dora, spirited off by a well-dressed man, grows up to be a classy hustler, a professional mystery woman who takes men for their money on trains and boats.
Lili, kidnapped by a lower-class stranger, becomes an aspiring anarchist, nervously willing herself to bomb the establishment. Their separate paths in life promise to intertwine when a wayfarer (Russian actor Oleg Jankowski) meets them separately, is attracted to both women and slowly makes the connection.
But there's no dramatic urgency to that saga. It takes second place to Enyedi's more abstract designs. Beginning and concluding with Edison's scientific breakthroughs (first the light bulb, then the telegram), she sustains a light-motif about the birth of electricity, communications, the movies and other wonders of the 20th century. She also muses on the self-reflexive nature of women, men's mother-and-whore attitudes towards them and the discovery of both halves of the self. On the visual end of things, she creates imaginative compositions, juxtaposes images with one another and jumps around with a sort of dreamlike logic.
Enyedi's gifted eye forgets to watch over her characters with as much sensitivity. Or perhaps she chooses not to. Either way, we have no indication of how the sisters feel about their lives, whether or not they think of, or miss, each other. Segda, who injects a certain charming, cooing presence into both parts (she even has a cameo as the twins' mother), can't break through this ultimately empty, artistic exercise.
One of the most striking scenes occurs when a doleful, wise Edison, announcing the world's first telegram (sent from New York to Tokyo and back within five minutes), espies a pigeon on the window ledge -- an earlier message-sending device. It's a picturesque image and it stays with you. But it also illustrates "Century's" inherent flaw: the fetching look -- and lack -- of it all.
MY TWENTIETH CENTURY (Unrated) -- In Hungarian with subtitles at the Key.