! Critic Judy Stone
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My 20th Century

I have just seen "My 20th Century" for the fourth time and I still think it's the most witty, enchanting and original movie in years.

It's an effervescent Hungarian celebration of electricity, love, movies and the infinite possibilities of man, woman and the chimpanzee. A playful, serendipitous fable, it won the 1989 Cannes Festival's Camera d'Or for best debut film.

The focus is on twin sisters who take different paths. Dora and Lili are born in 1880, about the same time Thomas Edison (Peter Andora) invented the electric light. A whoop-de-doo fiesta with fireworks and a black marching band, aglow with lights, greets the dawn of a new, electric age in Menlo Park, N.J., but only the stars twinkle and shine for Dora and Lili in far-off Budapest.

They are orphans, poor little match girls, selling their wares in the snow — until they are rescued by two top-hatted gents who flip a coin to decide which waif they'll each take. Dora grows into a flirtatious con artist, while shy Lili hugs to her bosom secret carrier pigeons, anarchistic leaflets and bombs. On the eve of the 20th century, they pass each other in trains heading in opposite directions, but the elegant passengers in first class are as excited as those in third as they peer out of the windows, magically decorated with lacy ice, to greet the new year.

When a poor but urbane wanderer (Oleg Jankowski) encounters Dora and Lili under different circumstances, he is bemused by what he assumes is one woman's unabashed deceit and her whimsical manifestations of bold eroticism and tremulous innocence. Whom will he choose? That is the question. Or do Dora and Lili represent the rich complexity to be found in a single human being?

Dorotha Segda, a Polish actress who could have given Marilyn Monroe a lesson in the art of seduction,plays both twins with the most fetching contrasts in style. She is a charmer, cooing Dora's little sighs that sound almost equally ecstatic in sexual abandonment or when she's coveting diamond necklaces. As Lili, she hides her revolutionary convictions under the demure manner of a true old-fashioned gentlewoman.

This saga of siblings is interrupted off and on — by the capture of a curious chimp, a dog's flight from Pavlovian experimentation and a malevolent philosopher's lecture on women's rights. In a very funny scene, the lecturer peers through his pince-nez and calmly informs the Union of Hungarian Feminists that he supports their right to vote but then becomes almost hysterical as he gets to the core of his weirdly misogynistic beliefs. The neatly hatted suffragettes are stunned, to say the least. His words are taken directly from the book, "Sex and Character," written by the exceedingly eccentric Austrian philosopher Dr. Otto Weininger, who committed suicide at age 23.

The film, shot in glowing black and white by Tibor Mathe, blithely skips around from Austria and the United States to Venice, Burma and the heart of Africa, while old movie clips are interspersed to bring back the wonder people felt when they first saw the magic lantern. The score by Laszlo Vidovsky adds its own inspiring and humorous tone.

There's no way to pin down the precise meaning of a film so full of marvelous surprises, but writer-director Ildyko Enyedi didn't want to give answers. She aimed to raise questions about the way science, which achieved the wonderful inventions of the 20th century, has now diminished our sense of the miraculous.

Perhaps the film only wants to sharpen our appreciation for the message that Edison sent around the world on his new telegraph machine. As a carrier pigeon perched on a window sill looks Edison in the eye, his telegraphers tap these words: "The Earth created by God is magnificent and man is magnificent also."

San Francisco Chronicle November 9, 1990