Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Kingdom - "A Foreign Body" (episode 3)

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Kingdom - "A Foreign Body" (episode 3)


Welcome to my viewing diary for the two-season Danish miniseries The Kingdom. Every day (except Saturday) I will offer a short review of another episode. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on December 8, 1994/written by Tómas Gislason, Niels Vorsel & Lars von Trier; directed by Morten Arnfred & Lars von Trier): Bondo decides to go under the knife. Thanks to Helmer, he's learned that although he cannot do an autopsy on his rarely-diseased patient, he is authorized to do an organ transplant. But who will be the recipient? Helmer suggests another chronic case, but Bondo, troubled by the ethics of that idea, realizes he is a match with the donor and submits himself to science. In an equally hilarious and horrifying gesture, Bondo allows the diseased liver to be placed in his own body, long enough for it to become his property, before eventually replacing it with another transplant. After this, he can conduct experiments with ethical impunity. Elsewhere, this is definitely the "archive" episode, dominated by a search through the Kingdom's written history (one of the dishwashers notes that this lofty scientific information is in fact "a history of pain, written in blood"). Two - no, three, no, four - characters attempt to access the high-security records room, mostly for the same purpose (or rather, different purposes pertaining to the same object). Helmer, who has strenuously tried to avoid the subject of his botched surgery on young Mona, is confronted by an inconvenient detail. A potentially damaging anesthesiologist's report was itself damaged - by a coffee stain. So far, so good, it seems - at least for a surgeon who appears to be covering his own path. Unfortunately, Moesgaard casually informs the worried doctor that there's a duplicate of this document locked away in the hospital archive. Helmer confronts Rigmor, asking why she only destroyed one copy with purposeful coffee stains. When pressed, he refuses to admit why he considers the report so damning but seems determined to destroy all evidence that something went wrong.

Jørgen also wants to get his hands on that evidence, for blackmail rather than evidence. We see how his M.O. works firsthand when he acquires Mogge's cadaver head, stuffs it into his locked refrigerator, and forces the terrified young man to do his dirty work (Mogge finds out that during a security test every night, the archive door is unlocked for a half-hour). Jørgen also has a more willing - and subtle - collaborator in Judith, making calls to retrieve Helmer's document. Meanwhile, Sigrid and her son have their own reason to break into the archive: the old woman wants to find the dead girl's burial record after several more ghostly encounters (including communion with a haunted candle and a car chase with a phantasmic ambulance). All of these threads coincide during that nightly half-hour, in an artfully orchestrated roundelay of nervous, duplicitous encounters and near-encounters by a half-dozen hospital staff and patients all trying to tap into the secret space. Somehow only Jørgen and Judith succeed at attaining Helmer's record, to the horror of the Swedish surgeon as he spots them looking at it while he operates on Bondo. Sigrid and Bulder, meanwhile, get Mary's record but discover she isn't buried anywhere. Instead, the form notes "internal use" and Sigrid repeats the term, trying to figure out what it means, until she stumbles upon a shocking revelation: Mary is right there in the room with them, not as a ghost but in physical form - a corpse floating in formaldehyde in a tube for the past seventy-five years.

My Response:
"A Foreign Body" really emphasizes what may be The Kingdom's core theme: the absurd gap between the authoritative, scientific veneer of medical work and its grisly, and frequently haphazard, essence. The whole archive scenario plays like something out of a screwball comedy, with characters bungling their plans, barely able to conceal their self-interested desperation behind the presentation of protocol. The core of this comical story, however, is deadly serious: both cases involve a little girl whose life was destroyed by the powerful hospital staff, either through arrogant carelessness or malicious intent. I am watching this episode quite a long time after the previous two, so it was interesting to revisit those early reviews and realize I hadn't mentioned the Mona situation at all (I've now added one line to the first review, since it seems far too important a plot point to neglect). We've also already seen Mary and Mona together in a previous episode - a striking image of the ghost sitting beside the patient, in each case the connection between body and mind severed, albeit in opposite directions. And there may be other connections brewing...there's certainly something ominous about Judith's unborn child (Jørgen accompanies her to an ultrasound and after a happy scene with the couple, von Trier cuts to an eerie close-up of the fetus writhing inside the green snow of the image scan). Given the revelation of Mary's present state as well as a strange vision of Judith becoming transparent before Jørgen's eyes - offering a whole new meaning the term "ghosting" - could the spirit that's haunting the Kingdom possibly be worming itself inside Judith's womb? "A foreign body," indeed.

Of course the title has other meanings, among them Bondo's momentary appropriation of another man's organ. Here the doctor reveals that he himself can become a victim of his own ambition - or perhaps that abstract obsession with the cause of Medicine outstrips his own personal ego. There's something endearing about this revelation, especially since many of the other doctors are selfishly conspiring to obscure the truth, even sacrificing their professional integrity at the altar of self-preservation (hence Jørgen's power - though I should probably refer to him by the apt nickname "Dr. Hook," as most other characters do in this episode). But Bondo worships a different god. It still doesn't really seem like he's doing this for the sake of humanity, to save lives, but more to solve a particularly different problem. This makes his behavior less noble, perhaps, but no less impressive (while a good deal more wryly absurd). As the episode ends, they're stitching him up while the machinery makes alarming sounds - is it possible that the surgery has gone wrong and Bondo is no more? If so, and if Helmer's last-minute departure made a crucial difference, then we can chalk up yet another cost to his surgical mistake, and especially to the hubris that forces him to conceal this.

Next: "The Living Dead" • Previous: "Thy Kingdom Come"


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