My summer with Lars: "The Kingdom" (1994)

Pictured above: the irascible neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) confronts his nemesis, the hypochondriacal spiritualist Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) as both of them attempt to break into the hospital archives in Episode 4 of LvT’s miniseries Riget (The Kingdom), which aired on Danish television in 1994.  It’s a project that represents a turning point in vT’s career for a number of reasons: it marks his first unqualified success (the series was wildly popular with both audiences and critics, and went on to win major prizes), demonstrates a newfound command over tone and narrative (especially in his deft shifts from dark comedy to Gothic to kitschy melodrama), and introduces a binarism that will continue to structure most of his major films through Melancholia (2011), namely the conflict between reason/rationality/science, nearly always coded as masculine, and the irrational/supernatural/spiritual, usually embodied by a woman viewed as mentally unstable in some way or another.  (“Here is a picture of her nut,” Helmer says, looking at one of Mrs. Drusse’s X-rays.  “There is some gray matter slopping about inside it.  The ill-informed would call it her brain.”  He also calls her a “numbskull.”  Cf. the heroines of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, etc., who are “crazy” or “not right in the head.”)  In vT’s universe, female irrationality almost always trumps masculine logic—though usually at some (usually catastrophic) cost.  As the final moments of Series One of The Kingdom reveal, Mrs. Drusse has succeeded in both raising and exorcising the ghosts of Helmer’s past, but has inadvertently opened a portal to hell in the process.

The reason/spirituality conflict echoes throughout vT’s subsequent films, and we find later incarnations of the dour, self-satisfied Helmer in Breaking the Waves’ church elders (as well as the well-meaning but ineffectual Dr. Richardson), the smug rationalist Tom Edison in Dogville, Willem Dafoe’s manipulative psychiatrist in Antichrist, and the Kiefer Sutherland character in Melancholia.  And, tellingly, this conflict between masculine and feminine knowledge in The Kingdom becomes increasingly violent:  Helmer’s pretending to strangle Mrs. Drusse foreshadows Dafoe’s strangulation of Charlotte Gainsbourg at the end of Antichrist.

All told, though, The Kingdom is—unlike nearly all of the later iterations of this quintessentially von Trier-ian narrative—an example of vT working in full-on comic mode, right down to his wink-nudge walk-ons at the end of each episode (see below), in which he presents himself as a Hitchcockian puppet-master.  Perhaps The Kingdom is successful because it marks vT's first real attempt at Hitchcockian audience manipulation, steering us variously toward suspense and horror, but always, in the end, back to laughter.  While one gets the sense in the later films that vT is sometimes laughing at us, in The Kingdom he laughs with us.        

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