The King(dom) of Comedy

The Kingdom

The ever-divisive Lars von Trier is not known as a storyteller, and that’s the main reason his miniseries The Kingdom — which was released on DVD in November — is so surprising.

The provocateur writer/director’s early work — The Element of Crime (1984) and Europa (1991) — sticks in my memory for its density of style and its nearly inscrutable convolution. Those movies were nightmarish not in the sense of being scary or overtly threatening, but because I felt trapped and emotionally lost in them.

Breaking the Waves, von Trier’s breakthrough 1996 film, bludgeoned audiences with many elements of his infamous anti-style style: Dogme 95 and its intriguing but silly “Vow of Chastity”. Breaking the Waves was not technically a Dogme 95 film, but it was a high-profile example of a philosophy and austere aesthetic (handheld cameras, natural light, etc.) established in reaction to the gloss and artificiality of contemporary cinema.

Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003) represented new formal experiments for von Trier, one a grimy-looking musical tragedy and the other a surprisingly involving melding of movie and theater.

Those two charged works generated criticism that von Trier blindly hates America — it’s almost always noted that the filmmaker has never been to the United States because he’s afraid of flying — but those dismissals miss an essential component of the Dane: He blindly hates (and/or fears) people, period. So, yes, he hates America. And yes, he hates women, as Breaking the Waves strongly suggests. He hates me, too.

Just as importantly, discussions of von Trier’s politics deflect attention from the reality that he’s one of the most adventurous and rigorous stylists working in (relatively) mass-market movies today; you might dislike a lot (or all) of what he does, but he has a sincere interest in exploring how cinematic form converges with content to create meaning. Plot and character often seem secondary to von Trier, with technical conceits or constraints taking precedence.

You can see this most clearly in the fascinating, enlightening, and unexpectedly human filmmaking documentary The Five Obstructions, in which von Trier demands that his idol re-make a short film five different times, each under different conditions.

All this backdrop is to say that 1994’s The Kingdom — which von Trier co-wrote and co-directed — is an anomaly. A compelling synthesis of chilling ghost yarn, silly workplace farce, and gleeful skewering of the medical profession, The Kingdom is more concerned with story and character — and less interested in style — than anything I’ve seen in his oeuvre.

The series does have a style, and it is meaningful, but it’s not the dominant feature. The moldy, sickly video gives The Kingdom a cheap feel; with antiquated special effects and dank cinematography, it looks like it came from a Soviet Bloc country during the Cold War.

The director uses this to his advantage. The Kingdom casts itself (in theme and in the prologue that begins each of the four episodes) as a tug-of-war between the scientific and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred, the advanced and the primitive. The texture of The Kingdom — its failure to deliver the visual dynamism and polish audiences expect from contemporary television — places it somewhere in the middle of that struggle, like some nascent technology that hints at great promise but is itself awkward, ugly, and only marginally functional.

And that’s appropriate, because Kingdom Hospital is a limbo, a place where the living and the dead mingle. There’s a constant patient who fancies herself a medium as well as a psychic detective. A phantom ambulance that arrives at the hospital with no driver and no patient. The ghosts of a dog and a little girl. Two dishwashers with Down Syndrome who seem oracular but can only express their meanings in a crude vocabulary. And a bunch of medical staffers too wrapped up in their egos, their power dynamics, their research, their secret society, and a goofy initiative to notice the strange goings-on around them.

This is not a hospital where you want to end up, either as a patient or a staffer. Stig Helmer is a sour, blustery, and arrogant neurosurgeon visiting from Sweden and desperate to keep an anesthesia report out of the hands of the hospital’s medical director following a botched operation. Rigmor is crazy simply by virtue of being in love with Helmer. Moesgaard is the administrator behind Operation Morning Breeze, a daft effort to improve communication with patients that involves singing at staff meetings. Krogshøj is something of a scavenger, living in the hospital’s bowels and collecting medical detritus such as half-used bottles of anesthetic eyedrops from which he can extract cocaine. Bondo is a pathologist torn between his ethics and his fierce need to complete his research. And the medical student Mogge somehow thinks that cutting the head off a corpse will endear him to the woman he covets.

Nearly all of these characters could be seen as rotten, a trait also conveyed through the slightly degraded — nearly decaying — quality of the images. Would it surprise anyone to learn that von Trier, an admitted hypochondriac, doesn’t care for the field of medicine?

But this surprisingly is not a screed; it’s an entertainment — something rarely said about von Trier’s work. The Kingdom is a marvel of balance, modulation, and tone, able to shift gracefully between comedy and horror — and damned good at each.

Attempting to do both is always a difficult trick, and the finished product inevitably tips one way or is hopelessly schizophrenic. But this series is different, particularly in the way that everything — especially the humor and satire — is ghoulish and grim; the comedy is kin to the horror, rather than working in opposition to it. The Kingdom, in other words, isn’t horror leavened by comedy, or comedy with horror motifs; it’s horrific comedy.

The series’ success is also rooted in the proportions of its parts. When I first caught some of The Kingdom on television several years ago, I couldn’t reconcile its inordinate attention to character and hospital politics with what was pitched as horror. In seeing the whole, though, the horror works particularly well because of that attention to character and hospital politics. The chills — and they’re the sort that run up the spine rather than make you jump — are infrequent; the protective bubbles of normalcy, routine, and pettiness are given time to re-establish themselves, only to be deflated at regular intervals.

Unfortunately, we’ll likely never have the full Kingdom to evaluate. The original miniseries — which ends mid-climax — was followed by a set of episodes in 1997 (presently unavailable in the United States). The conclusion of the planned trilogy was scrapped because of multiple cast deaths, although the scripts were sent to Stephen King for his unfortunate and tone-deaf American-television adaptation. (The prolific author inexplicably added a talking anteater to the narrative for his Kingdom Hospital. As a rule, talking anteaters are excellent indicators that what you’re watching is not quality filmed entertainment.)

It’s curious, though, that the first Kingdom stands on its own as a satisfactory, fully formed work, even though it lacks any sort of resolution and leaves viewers with the unpleasant and graphic birthing of a grown man.

It turns out to be a fitting place to stop the series. For there can be no doubt that when an adult male emerges head-first from a vagina, things are not going to end well for anybody.

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