The provocateur label that Lars von Trier has proudly worn his entire career has given way to something more melancholic in “The Kingdom Exodus,” the five-part conclusion of his now-13-part mini-series that premieres on Mubi on Sunday, November 27th. Controversies and allegations have dogged the filmmaker with increasing regularity over the last decade or so, and his health has become an issue after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. So there’s a sense in “Exodus” that this is the work of an artist who knows he may not have many more opportunities to express himself. It’s not an accident that the first episode includes a shot of the young LVT giving one of his to-camera speeches that ended each of the first eight episodes. It's to place his youthful image in the mind's eye because his health forces him behind a curtain, only his feet visible, for the segments this time around. But it’s easy to “see him” in this fascinating return to the farcical/supernatural hybrid that’s really like nothing else that’s been on TV in the last five years.
Of course, it IS like one other TV phenomenon. Von Trier admitted that “The Kingdom” was inspired by “Twin Peaks,” and one has to wonder if “Exodus” would exist without the creative success of “Twin Peaks: The Return” in 2017. In much the same way that David Lynch revisited characters and warped imagery from his landmark series, Von Trier returns to some of the same characters and ideas, once again crafting a truly inspired blend of the surreal and the comedic. The hospital at which every scene of the show takes place is not just a place of ancient supernatural forces that might be rising to finally drag it into the earth but it’s also a place of truly mundane idiocy, a building that’s as weighed down by bureaucracy and stupidity as much as it is the evil that could be buried in its foundation.
What is “The Kingdom” about? Well, that’s where things get difficult. It’s the kind of exaggerated universe wherein a woman can give birth to Udo Kier wrapped into a form that sometimes resembles a traditional medical soap opera, but most of the doctors here are self-obsessed idiots. “Exodus” actually opens with a woman named Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) finishing a viewing of the first series and going to the hospital to see what’s going on there for herself. She finds more questions than answers, including an actual beating heart of the hospital and the giant head of Udo Kier, drowning in its tears. Alexander Skarsgard takes over for his dad in a very funny turn as a lawyer whose office is on the toilet and Willem Dafoe appears as a shapeshifting man who may actually be Satan. It’s a lot. And that’s just scratching the surface.
It’s really quite difficult to do the “plot synopsis” portion of a review of something like “The Kingdom Exodus.” While it’s technically got several competing subplots and dense mythology, the plot doesn’t matter as much as the mood here. It’s a show that has a cumulative power in its moments—whether it’s a weird little comedic beat like the head doctor who complains that his computer solitaire is too easy (not knowing that IT already has its difficulty set at 4-8 years old) or the terrifying image of an aggressively violent doctor popping his eye out with a spoon (only for it to be back to normal the next time we see it). “The Kingdom Exodus” feels at times like its competing tones and subplots are at war with each other—the whiplash of the broad farce of a broken system with the more terrifying Lynchian elements of a woman exploring the spiritual underground of the hospital can be intense—but that’s very intentional. Hospitals are places of extreme emotion where tragedy can exist in a room next door to a miraculous recovery. And Von Trier has often played with broad tonal shifts with dark comedy throughout much of his filmography. The extremes of his tastes just find a perfect setting at Kingdom Hospital.
Fans of Von Trier’s will enjoy picking out the themes of his career reflected again in “The Kingdom Exodus,” which now includes what feels like an increased emphasis on mortality that could be a product of his health and a slightly discomfiting subplot about a doctor (a phenomenal Mikael Persbrandt) accused of impropriety by a colleague (the also-great Tuva Novotny). It’s all handled in a way that can be very funny—the two actors walk right up to a tonally uncomfortable edge in a way that’s impressive—but it might be hard for some viewers to shake memories of the allegations against Von Trier himself by Bjork when the issue is being used for farce here. In the end, it doesn’t feel like Von Trier is apologizing or accusing as much as putting another part of his life into his art. He can't do anything else. Von Trier has always been a personal filmmaker, and this ends up being one of his most confessional and revealing works. He ends each episode with a line about good and evil existing in the same space. In a sense, it feels like a thought that has defined much of his remarkable career and he’s unpacking how that belief impacted his life and work through this ambitious five-hour film.
For the record, Lars von Trier hasn’t retired, and I certainly hope his health remains strong enough that he continues to work. However, if that’s not the case, this would be a fascinating send-off, a return to a work that shaped his career and reputation, maybe not with the wisdom of age as much as the sense that such a thing doesn’t exist.
Available exclusively on MUBI on November 27th.