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Kingdom Exodus.jpg

Review: Lars von Trier Returns to Hospital With the Long-Awaited ‘Kingdom Exodus’

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | December 2, 2022 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | December 2, 2022 |


Kingdom Exodus.jpg

How do you solve a problem like Lars von Trier? The Danish enfant terrible is a multi-award-winning filmmaker who helped to revolutionize European cinema in the ’90s with the stripped back Dogme movement. His work inspires adoration and revulsion in equal measure, usually from the same people. You either think he’s a subversive genius who is always pushing the boundaries or you want to drop him down a well. He’s a troll, proudly so, the kind of director who seems giddy to rub his ceaseless nihilism in everyone’s faces (and that’s not even getting into his dark family history and the allegations of sexual harassment.) This year, von Trier revealed his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, which has positioned his latest project as a likely conclusion to his long and divisive career. One can’t help but feel an air of dread around Kingdom Exodus as a result.

This is, in many ways, von Trier’s Twin Peaks: The Return; a third season to a surreal cult series that inspired immense cult-like devotion, myriad theories, and a not-great American adaptation (indeed, the series was initially inspired by Lynch’s drama.) Set in the neurosurgical ward of Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet, The Kingdom (known as Riget in Denmark) was a mishmash of mystery, horror, medical drama, black comedy, and twisted artist’s statement. It’s a weird blend of nightmare fuel and ragging on the Swedish. Exodus follows suit and ends up being perhaps the funniest thing von Trier has ever made.

Opening with a new character, the sleepwalker Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), turning off her DVD of the series and declaring its conclusion to be gibberish, the series only gets more meta from here. Karen wants to solve the unsolved mysteries from the unsatisfying ending of her new favorite TV show while faces familiar and new alike try to get on with their jobs in a failing hospital. A new surgeon has arrived from Sweden to help run the neurosurgery unit. The current head (Lars Mikkelsen, having an absolute ball) just wants to take naps and avoid trouble. Rogue students conduct experiments to discover if pain is tearing the universe apart. Swedes gather for AA-style meetings to share their solitude in a new country. Willem Dafoe turns up and might be an emissary of the Devil (typecasting much?) A robot dishwasher and a man with progeria act as the Greek chorus. Everyone is drunk. Oh, and also evil might be trying to break out of the basement and into the real world, eager to finish the work of the first two seasons that may or may not have just been scripted drama from a TV show. So, standard stuff for old Lars.

I have no idea how any of this plays if you haven’t seen the original series. It must be like jumping into the Dougie Jones stuff in The Return without seeing a single prior episode of Twin Peaks. The call backs are plentiful and cheeky, such as when Alexander Skarsgard turns up as a Swedish lawyer, the same role his dad played a couple of decades ago. Similarly to that series, for those devotees seeking long-awaited answers, closure does not seem likely (I saw the show at TIFF, where they screened two episodes out of five.) Characters lament how the initial show tarnished the hospital’s reputation and deride von Trier as an ‘idiot.’ Don’t emotionally invest too much in a concept where everyone talks about it all being a lie. While we see a few familiar faces, the lion’s share of the focus falls upon new ones, which is also a necessity on von Trier’s part given the deaths of various cast members.

For all of the surrealness, the supernatural tone that imbues the show with an aching sense of dread, it’s also funny as hell. Much of the season’s humor comes from the heightened rivalry between the Danes and Swedes, with the former seemingly viewing their neighbors as drunken savages (there is a lot of boozing in this show.) Not that Sweden fares better. The detestable Dr. Helmer Jr., the son of the initial show’s lead character, is the sort of man who lovingly strokes Tetra-Paks and masturbates to something called the ‘Swedish Sing-Along’ on YouTube. Mikael Persbrandt, maybe best-known to non-Swedes for Sex Education, pays homage to the late Ernst-Hugo Järegård with his arrogance and delightful lack of self-awareness, although he may not be quite as detestable as his old man. Don’t worry, though, because he also adopts his dad’s catchphrase of yelling ‘Danish scum’ in fury at the end of each episode!

Trying to sum up Kingdom Exodus is no mean feat, and it’s not easy to convey how truly enjoyable it is to skeptics. I don’t blame anyone who wants to sit out a Lars von Trier production, even if this one isn’t the nihilistic torture-fest that many of his most infamous films are. You’re either with this or you’re not, just like Twin Peaks: The Return, a long-awaited conclusion that practically dared viewers to accept it. The tonal shifts here are broad and often sudden. Horrifying things happen in contrast to the petty squabbles of doctors who just want to drink and sleep on the job. Udo Kier is back (and if you know how he appeared in the first season, you know what a threat that is.) The apocalypse seems to be just around the corner, but more screen time is given to bureaucratic stupidity. In The Kingdom, the true pain of the world has always taken second place to selfish desires.

It remains to be seen if the rest of Kingdom: Exodus can live up to the prior two seasons, or if its meta commentary will pay off as more than a fun joke. In fairness, it would be extremely von Trier for such build-up to climax with a middle finger and joke about Volvos. If nothing else, at least the journey is a blast, and still unlike anything else that’s currently on TV.

Kingdom: Exodus is premiering on MUBI, where you can also watch the first two seasons.