As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Anna Swanson reviews the first two episodes of Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom: Exodus. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
Lars von Trier has never been one for fan service, and in all likelihood, he never will be. But the closest that the director will probably ever come to this is The Kingdom: Exodus. The return to this project — one of von Trier’s strangest, most tonally off-kilter, and most niche creations — makes you feel like you’re in on a joke with the director. At least, that’s the case when it’s not confounding you.
Part of this sensation derives from the mere fact that this season exists. Exodus is the third season of The Kingdom, which aired its first two seasons some twenty-five years ago. Since then, the filmmaker has established himself as one of arthouse cinema’s greatest provocateurs — emphasis there could easily go on “provoke” or “auteur.” Having been invited to, awarded at, and banned from major film festivals, von Trier has achieved as much fame as he has infamy. The last two decades have seen him work predominantly in English and with some veritable A-List talent from Nicole Kidman to Kirsten Dunst. He’s always courted controversy, but his consistent output and the caliber of talent he’s worked with prove that when von Trier calls, people answer.
All of this is to say that while the first two seasons of The Kingdom have their share of fans, the show does not rank at the top of von Trier’s most popular creations. The show centers on a Danish hospital called The Kingdom, built on a site where the battle between logic and the supernatural has existed for centuries. The cast is mostly homegrown talent, and the language is predominantly Danish, two elements that contrast with von Trier’s most famous films. For him to return to the world of a mysterious Copenhagen hospital, it’s not because the masses were demanding it but because he opted for it.
Exodus opens with an awareness of its own unusual place in the show’s chronology. Decades have passed since the season two finale. On top of that — and this was readily apparent during Exodus‘ single public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival — there is an audience for this season who haven’t seen the show before. If you’re in that camp of viewers, the good news is that the show is getting a restoration that will air on Mubi before the third season premieres on the platform.
However, if you are familiar with the show, you’ll instantly pick up on some of the sly ways that Exodus has incorporated questions left over from the first two seasons. There are also some new questions to ponder, including whether or not the events of the first two seasons even happened in the diegetic world that Exodus exists in.
Exodus has a self-awareness, or at least a self-reflexivity, that distinguishes it from the rest of The Kingdom, but it’s also retained a great deal of similarity with the other seasons. For starters, the show is still deeply funny. It has elements of a workplace comedy, with slapstick humor on full display and a script with a dry wit.
Another element retained from the earlier seasons is the cast, many of whom returned. Even among the new arrivals to the show, there are familiar faces, including Alexander Skarsgard, who has inherited his place in the show as the Kingdom’s resident Swedish lawyer from his father. Indeed, fathers and sons are integral to many of the show’s themes, with a certain paternal figure serving as one of the major antagonists of the show’s first two seasons. The first two episodes of Exodus, which are all that screened at TIFF, indicate in the opening credits that this particular character is back in one form or another, but exactly how that plays out is unknown until at least episode three.
Though the implication is that more nefarious characters are yet to appear, the first two episodes deliver a prime antagonist: Helmer Jr. (Mikael Persbrandt), playing the son of Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), an uppity Swedish doctor sent to work in Copenhagen. Helmer Jr., or as he quickly becomes known, Halfmer (he is half of his father, after all), has the goal of both raising the Danish standards, as he puts it, and discovering why working at this hospital drove his father insane twenty years ago. Oh, I should mention, if you’re not familiar with the contentious nature of Danish-Swedish relations, you soon will be.
Based on the first two episodes of Exodus, The Kingdom is back with more reality-bending and self-reflexivity that will distinguish it from prior seasons. But character quirks and laugh-out-loud jokes (I never thought I would see a line about Tetra Paks bringing the house down) are as they’ve always been.
One of the differences, which is both acknowledged in the show and inevitably brought in by audience awareness, is the presence and role of von Trier himself. In the earlier seasons, each episode would end with von Trier standing before a curtain while recounting the events that had happened and teasing what is to come. With the show’s creator greeting you while the credits run and looking like the cat who ate the canary, there was never any doubt that von Trier was quite proud of himself and all the ways he managed to baffle and titillate his viewers.
Now, with his Parkinson’s diagnosis recently publicly revealed, von Trier is undoubtedly aware of what this could mean for his potential future output. In Exodus, von Trier has taken a literal step back, now figuring as an unseen creator, but of course, this only has the counter-effect of drawing attention to him as the show’s creative force (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain). During one of these post-episode addresses, he discusses his vanity and how the years since the show first aired have worn on him. He no longer wishes to be front and center anymore. It’s a touching bit of humility that I could say more about if I wasn’t so sure he’d detest anyone getting sentimental on his behalf. Instead, all I’ll say is that as brilliant, hilarious, and surreal as Exodus is, I hope it’s not von Trier’s curtain call.