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In Features, Issues

IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES

by Peter Bowen

As its title suggests, Lars von Trier’s epicThe Kingdom is ruled by laws and economies all its own. Produced as a five-part series for Danish television about the wacky operations of a teaching hospital founded to serve the "Kingdom of Denmark," the film’s life and death comedies are eerily paled by a supernatural drama from beyond the realm of medical science. As television, The Kingdom’s episodic plots and subplots – not unlike the hospital’s labyrinth of corridors and elevators – veer off in paths which more often than not lead nowhere at all. In one story, an overzealous intern decapitates a corpse to impress an indifferent nurse; in another, an eccentric pathologist transplants a diseased liver inside himself to further his clinical studies. So marches on Western medicine. But somewhere above and below all this, signaled by cutaways of grainy helicopter shots of the hospital’s edifice and alluded to by gurgling glimpses of subterranean flood waters, is a ghost story whose transcendent mystery propels the entire film’s narrative. Begun when Madam Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a failed spiritualist who routinely checks herself in for non-existent illnesses, hears a little girl crying in the elevator, the search for this ghost slowly touches and inevitably infects every character in the film. The co-existence of these two narrative strategies – the continually unraveling story lines of television soaps with the single-minded obsessiveness of a mystery – illustrate not only the complex machinery of von Trier’s aesthetic but more pointedly the curious fate of the European art film in the age of television’s global imperialism.

Picked up by October Films for US distribution, this quirky masterpiece would appear, on paper, to be a completely losing proposition: an over four-hour-long Danish-language film transferred from film to video and back again (the video was manipulated to give a monochromatic orange tint reminiscent of bad shag carpet) and shot and edited in a style that flagrantly defies temporal and spatial logic. But on screen, as October’s president Bingham Ray exudes, the film "is a complete surprise, sucking [you] in in the first 15 minutes and never letting go." Tipped off to it by acquisition exec Marsha Kirkley who saw it at Rotterdam, Ray squeezed in a late night screening of the film in Berlin last year. The very next day he tracked down The Kingdom’s sales rep, Felice Bober, beating out larger Hollywood distributors who considered it for an English-language remake. Ever optimistic, Ray considers the project "a marketing man’s dream to find the right spirit and right distribution strategy." Like Dennis Potter’s eight-hour television film, The Singing Detective, which received a limited theatrical release in the US, The Kingdom has already garnered considerable critical attention as this year’s winner of the Golden Space Needle at the Seattle Film Festival.

What could sell The Kingdom in the US is its unexpected watchability. Hijacking television’s guilty pleasures of spectacle and narrative melodrama, The Kingdom forgoes the high-minded boredom so often attributed to European art films. But von Trier has built his reputation on recycling different genres and formats into strikingly original and unexpected visions. In his feature debut, The Element of Crime (1984), a police thriller turns sci-fi, then back again. In Epidemic (1984), medical disaster, film-about-film, and horror flick trade places in a movie version of musical chairs. And in his most famous work, Zentropa (1991), political allegory becomes Hitchcockian thriller becomes gothic horror all in one long train ride.

Despite their generic shape shifting, von Trier’s films consistently revive the tradition of European art film, a genre whose tenuous definition rests on a feigned indifference to the marketplace and an ecstatic pleasure in pushing the boundaries of the film medium. As such, von Trier has even issued manifestoes, proclaiming, "We want to go back when the joy of creating oozed out of every frame" and "we want to see mistresses of the screen vibrant with life: unreasonable, stupid, stubborn, ecstatic, repulsive, wonderful, but not tamed and made sexless by a moralizing grumpy filmmaker, a stinking puritan, cultivating the moronic virtues of the nice facade. In short, we want to see heterosexual films, for, about and by men."

As an international "art" filmmaker, along with such directors as Raul Ruiz and Jean-Luc Godard (both of whom have also made television films), von Trier has cultivated his artistic persona, parodying himself in films like Epidemic and striking an artist-in-residence pose by often refusing to leave Denmark. (Such nationalistic gestures are wonderfully played out in The Kingdom as the sole villain is a Swedish surgeon who, when not botching his operations, escapes to the hospital’s roof to gaze at the distant lights of his beloved homeland and spew insults against the cursed Danes.)

However original and independent von Trier appears, one need only skim film criticism about The Kingdom to fathom his dependence on popular art forms. While the The New York Times’ Stephen Holden takes the high road by noting how The Kingdom "echoes of everything from Hamlet to The Magic Mountain," Variety defines the film as "a lunatic, Twin Peaks-like meld of black-comedy and Z-grade horror." And press notes for the film flag Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital, as well as TV’s ER. Without much work, one could easily throw General Hospital and Poltergeist, not to mention David Lynch, into the mix. But von Trier’s surgical strikes on popular culture make for much of the film’s fun. Like the doctors the film follows, The Kingdom’s own chop-and sew-approach to American television and popular film may go a long way to resuscitate the dying and often deadly genre of the European art film.

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