‘The Kingdom Exodus’ Review: Lars von Trier Goes Full Meta With the Return of His Creepy Hospital Drama

·5-min read
MUBI

Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom Exodus” warrants comparison with David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” for multiple parallels between the two: Both are peak prestige TV with indelible auteurist hallmarks, returning for their third seasons after a quarter-century hiatus. Both invoke the supernatural, concoct elaborate lore and boast captivated cult-like followings.

Though the Danish “Kingdom” is of course much lesser known, its first two seasons did make enough of a cultural impact through international theatrical runs to spawn a Stephen King–created American remake, “Kingdom Hospital.”

“Kingdom Exodus,” making its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, gets much more meta. In the cold open, Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) watches von Trier’s signoff from the previous season’s finale on TV. Frustrated by the series’ loose ends, she heads to bed and affixes restraints to herself to prevent sleepwalking. She experiences a nightmare, rises, unties herself, hops into a cab inexplicably waiting outside her house, and heads to Copenhagen’s infamous Rigshospitalet, the Kingdom Hospital.

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The imagery is pristine and dreamlike to this point, something straight out of “Melancholia.” As soon as Karen steps inside the hospital, though, the visuals immediately deteriorate to the washed-out aesthetics of the previous seasons. She inquires about Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) and Little Brother (Udo Kier) with a security guard, who rants that the “bloody TV show” by “blundering fool Trier” has damaged the hospital irreparably. Later Karen encounters hospital orderly Bulder (Nicolas Bro), who pulls some strings in getting her admitted so she can continue to investigate.

While the series’ central battle between good and evil rages on, so does its age-old rivalry between the Danes and the Swedes, with the arrival of Swedish neurosurgeon Halfmer (Mikael Persbrandt), son of Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) from previous seasons. Upon landing on the rooftop helicopter pad, Halfmer orders the ground crew to “take me to your leader” like some alien. He learns the hard way about the staff’s many bizarre and degrading rituals and discovers a support group for Swedish expats working there.

Director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro (a von Trier regular) and editors Jacob Schulsinger (“Force Majeure”), My Thordal (“A Taste of Hunger”) and Olivier Bugge Coutté (“The Worst Person in the World”) have faithfully maintained the series’ look and feel despite not having worked on previous seasons. “Kingdom Exodus” more overtly evokes mockumentary because of its self-reference. While previous seasons also employed handheld camera, swipe pans, rapid zooms and abrupt cuts, the mustard-hued cinematography made everything look so highly stylized that it might have muddled the series’ mockumentary aspirations.

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The meta-ness seems characteristic of the narcissism that has taken over von Trier’s oeuvre since the last season. Camilla (Solbjørg Højfeldt), a returning character, tells Karen, “the director forced us to say all his stupid lines.” A guided tour of the hospital makes a show of von Trier’s private room. The filmmaker also appears as none other than the devil himself. He doesn’t sign off during the credits as with the previous seasons, though, presumably because of his recently disclosed Parkinson’s diagnosis.

While often self-deprecating to the point of good-humored self-flagellation, von Trier at times also appears unrepentantly defensive. Much like his previous feature, “The House That Jack Built,” parts of “Kingdom Exodus” seem to indirectly address the criticisms and allegations lodged against him over the years — the cinematic equivalent of subtweeting, if you will. Halfmer emails colleague Anna (Tuva Novotny) a consent form for permission to pat her backside, which prompts her to contact the resident Swedish lawyer (Alexander Skarsgård, whose father, Stellan, appeared last season as Helmer’s attorney), who has set up shop in a restroom. Halfmer’s ambiguous relationship with Anna comes off like some sort of thinly-veiled response to Björk’s accusing von Trier of sexual harassment on the set of “Dancer in the Dark.”

The director also exhibits disdain for political correctness in what he sees as its hypocrisy and lack of practicality. Halfmer outs himself as a bigot upon his arrival at Rigshospitalet, freely dropping offensive epithets, though he is quick to criticize the lack of diversity among the staff and adamantly insists on wide implementation of gender-neutral pronouns. The latter leads to brain surgery being performed on the wrong patient in a scene that recalls Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal,” only less explicit.

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There’s nothing this season nearly as disturbing or memorable as the live birth of Little Brother. The most unhinged scenes involve hothead Naver (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) twice dislodging his own eyeball from its socket. Special effects are serviceable, but not enough to make up for some of the plot holes and logical flaws. Although the season promises answers, it predictably opens another can of worms.

Much like “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Kingdom Exodus” expands on its lore, universe, and dimensions even further. Fear of the unknown is always dependable in this genre, and Rigshospitalet remains fertile ground ripe for exploration, even if promotional materials indicate this is the final season. Perhaps as an intentional nod at “Twin Peaks,” “Kingdom Exodus” also utilizes the doppelgänger trope. Just like those from the Black Lodge, doppelgängers in Rigshospitalet are evil and murderous.

“The Kingdom Exodus” is definitely a worthy entry in an iconic series, and fans of the show and of von Trier will most certainly find it entertaining and well worth the quarter-century wait. It never resonates with poignancy like “Twin Peaks: The Return” in its contemplation of the passage of time, though. It’s at a slight disadvantage in that regard because it doesn’t have one lone Agent Cooper to serve as its heart and soul. Now that von Trier himself is facing illness and mortality, perhaps it will prompt the auteur to dig even deeper to deliver his best work yet.

“The Kingdom Exodus” will stream on Mubi this fall.