The Kingdom Exodus Review: Lars von Trier goes back to his old tricks

The Kingdom Exodus begins with a joke, and for the next five hours it never gets serious, not even for a second. That’s not what you’d expect for the long-delayed finale of Lars von Trier’s TV horror series, although this over-the-top return to the haunted Rigshospitalet – that big, brutalist medical center in the heart of Copenhagen – sure makes it a lot more fun.

For a full two minutes, von Trier fools us into thinking this third season might look like a polished, top-of-the-line TV miniseries of the kind you might find on HBO or Netflix (after all, the original series came out in 1994, a year before the artistry-free one Danish Revolution, which was Dogme 95, and von Trier has since gone back to making dark fantasies with heightened style). We open to a close-up of a woman’s eye, ideally lit and solidly framed, reflecting a TV screen showing a tuxedo from Trier, a quarter of a century younger, above the closing credits of the final episode of Season 2.

“How can they peddle such half-baked crap? It’s not the end”, Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) complains, ejects her “Kingdom” DVD and goes to bed. From there, the show reverts to the sickly, iodine-tinged stylistic anarchy that fans of the cult series previously embraced. (DP Manuel Alberto Claro, who did such elegant work on “Melancholia” and “Nymphomaniac,” tries to match the sleazy, aggressive handheld camerawork that was the show’s trademark.)

Coincidentally, Karen is not wrong: in the director’s commentary on the same DVD, von Trier and co-writer Niels Vørsel essentially admitted that they had cornered themselves. “It might be a good thing there isn’t a part 3,” they joked. Still, the couple had always intended to wrap things up, and here, 25 years after Part 2, they’re up to mischief again. Over the next five hours there are secret passages, apparitions, magic puzzles, provocations of questionable taste (including commentary on the region’s Nazi past), a near-death experience, and a looming interdimensional annihilation event.

After taking notes from the TV show she was watching, Karen shows up at the hospital and immediately heads down to the basement, where a giant statue of Ogier the Dane blocks her path. Keep in mind that according to the prologue that accompanies each episode, the hospital was built on haunted bleaching grounds. It’s high time audiences witnessed the cosmic consequences of this unfortunate past – which in this case means the harassment of a devilish Willem Dafoe and the unforgettable sight of Udo Kier’s oversized head slowly drowning in tears. Those latter shots are just beautiful, like something out of an Andrei Tarkovsky film. There’s no question that Kier (who returns as the mutated baby Little Brother) got to play the most surreal moments on this show.

Meanwhile, upstairs, a mostly new staff of bureaucrats, braggarts, and patently unprofessional medical professionals have gone back to their old habit of holding ridiculous staff meetings and annoying each other. It’s the first day in the kingdom for Dr. Helmer (Mikael Persbrandt), the neurotic son of the eponymous Swedish neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (deceased actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård), who turned a patient into a human vegetable and spent hours analyzing his turd. His co-workers start bullying him as soon as he walks in the door; To deal with this, he organizes the other Swedes on staff to wreak havoc on the hospital.

Like Järegård, ‘Kingdom’ star Kirsten Rolffes – who played fan-favorite, ailing psychic Sigrid Drusse – passed away shortly after completing Part 2, meaning ‘Exodus’ needed new alternatives to its two main characters. That’s where Karen comes in, making steady progress on her quest to open the gates to the kingdom while everyone else acts like characters in a wacky workplace comedy.

It’s easy to see today that this whole project was ahead of its time, borrowing its license from Twin Peaks to be weird, while embracing British satires like The Office and In the Loop (and their US equivalents “The Office” and “Veep”), where sloppy, documentary footage of outrageously wrong behavior in the workplace offers a laugh-out-loud catharsis for people who thought their own real-world peers were intolerable. Even they probably don’t have co-workers as bad as Filip Naver (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who threatens to gouge his eye out with a spoon — and actually pulls it through — or Anna (Tuva Novotny), who wears nipples underneath her smocks to a lawsuit over provoke sexual harassment.

Most of the time, “Exodus” is so anarchic that von Trier and co. seem like they’ll make up for it over time. Perhaps they are to a degree, but the irreverent and often absurd comedy benefits from a quarter-century of the director’s self-imposed creative discipline. What von Trier took away from the Dogme 95 experiment was the challenge of navigating out of seemingly random logistical “obstacles”. Here he not only has to put an end to the audience, but he also has to stay at least somewhat consistent with the wacky characters, circumstances and aesthetic he established in the ’90s.

The Kingdom Exodus really builds on what came before, bringing back players like Balder (Nicolas Bro) and Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), while the dishwashing duo – two characters with Down Syndrome – who appear to be the , “upgraded” will only those who understood what the heck was going on. While striving for unpredictability, von Trier fills the miniseries with religious references and complex references to other texts, such as the Danse Macabre, seen silhouetted on the hospital roof, straight from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with all those Sometimes symbolism that conveys. Eventually, the meta-stunt of blaming von Trier for all this nonsense resurfaces, although it’s clear the director doesn’t feel too keen on playing God as Satan, with a sense of humor of course. The Kingdom Exodus Review: Lars von Trier goes back to his old tricks

Charles Jones

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