The mood of Ildiko Enyedi's "My 20th Century" is one of oddball rapture. The film, which is the Hungarian director's feature debut and won her the Camera D'Or prize at Cannes, is a modernist fable, a whimsical fairy tale about scientific, political and sexual revolution (among other things), but it addresses its subjects with the frantic logic of a cartoon.
Enyedi tells her story in a rush of lamebrain enthusiasm; it gushes out in a disorderly torrent of metaphors, half-chewed feminist notions, dream fragments and historical allusions that sometimes make sense, sometimes not. Initially this heady mix of encyclopedic wit and magical surrealism is fascinating, even if it is something of a muddle. The picture begins in 1880, with a dreamy display of Thomas Edison's electric light bulbs in Menlo Park, N.J. Then in a rush, as Edison broods gravely upon the changes of the coming century, the movie whisks us off to a variety of far-flung points of interest, including Budapest, where that same night, twin girls named Lili and Dora are born.
The images in these opening scenes -- they were shot by Tibor Mathe -- have an enveloping, moonstruck luminosity, especially a sequence in which, sitting together in a snowy town square, the girls dream of a visit they make to their dead mother, riding on the back of a burro. Shortly afterward these orphans of the storm (who are named for another pair of sisters from the same era, Lillian and Dorothy Gish) are carried off by kidnappers and raised separately. When we next see them, the new century is about to dawn. Dora, whose decolletage is as immodestly revealing as Madonna's in "Dick Tracy," has become an adventuress; Lili, whose clothes are modest if not a trifle prim, has become a bomb-throwing anarchist.
Instead of a conventional narrative, Enyedi presents a collection of free-associated scenes, most of them involving the sisters (who are both played by the Polish actress Dorotha Segda) in their separate encounters with a third character, the elegantly mysterious "Z" (Oleg Jankowski). In Budapest, Lili seems far too preoccupied with her mission to blow up the minister of the interior to respond to "Z's" advances. Imagine his surprise then when, during an ocean voyage, he is visited in his cabin late one night by a woman he believes to be Lili (but is in fact Dora). Or his disappointment when, upon his return to Budapest, he tries to re-create the events of that night with the real Lili.
Our fascination with Enyedi's experiments exhausts itself at about the time we realize that they are never really going to coalesce. Ultimately all the half-formed ideas and flitting around begin to grate on your nerves. The sisters, it turns out, are never more than philosophical concoctions -- two halves of incompletely formulated dialectic. Segda, who creates two very distinct personalities for the women she plays, seems more comfortable as the extroverted Dora, but neither character is allowed much space to evolve. They are types, primarily, and remain so.
"My 20th Century" is like a dream, without a unifying logic -- ravishing fragments without coherence or meaning. Immersed somewhere in all this are Enyedi's meditations on the true nature of women, the shortcomings of 20th-century progress, and the connections between art and science. Yet though her own inventiveness and witty command of the medium are invigorating, her thinking is so scrambled that her originality is undermined. The movie is overintellectualized and yet not fully thought out.
My 20th Century, at the Key, is unrated.