Film Review: The Commune

A couple’s spur-of-the-moment decision to turn their new home into a commune has unexpected consequences in Thomas Vinterberg’s promising but problematic drama.
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“I’m bored,” Anna (the superb Trine Dyrholm) says to her husband Erik (Ulrich Thomsen). “I need to hear someone else speak.” There are subtler ways to communicate middle-aged ennui to one’s husband, but that’s how the characters tend to speak in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune; if they’re not repressing themselves, they’re erupting. Based on the play that he co-wrote with Mogens Rukov, the movie follows what happens after Anna’s spur-of-the-moment declaration. Things go sideways, of course, but not in the ways one might imagine.

After the death of Erik’s father, the couple inherits the sprawling house that Erik grew up in. Unable to afford living there as it is, Erik assumes they will just sell it. But Anna proposes instead that they should invite people to move in with them as an experiment in communal living. In her mind, this will give them some help with the rent and provide a new spark to their apparently moribund life. Erik goes along, grumpily.

Vinterberg plays the first part of his movie as easygoing ensemble comedy, with the occasional period flourish. Each member of the new commune gets their interview and is assigned a distinguishing quirk, whether it’s the tear-prone anxiety of the rootless sad-sack Allon (Fares Fares) or the alpha-dog bossiness of Ole (a charismatic Lars Ranthe). But lip service is barely paid to the intricacies of this group-living scenario, with all its opportunities for serendipitous joys and close-quarters irritation. You would almost not know that all these people are living in the same house together, except that we are constantly seeing them at the dinner table having house meetings about it.

The story that Vinterberg is really telling here is that of Anna and Erik’s long-smoldering estrangement. Both are written as clichés, though Dyrholm and Thomsen are firing on all cylinders with their electrifying performances. Anna is a news broadcaster, always being stopped for autographs on the street. As a movie career woman she is of course barely holding it together, self-medicating with alcohol and making reckless life decisions on a whim. Erik is a simmering fuse of privileged anger. An architect and teacher, he bitterly resents anything that doesn’t go exactly his way. All it takes is one evening when Anna’s attention to him is distracted by their housemates and he’s suddenly receptive to romantic entreaties from Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), a student whose bright blonde aura appeals to his bruised ego. Once his new attachment becomes known in the house, the theory of communal living runs right up against its everyday reality.

Communal living was apparently quite the thing in Scandinavia during the 1970s, which is when Vinterberg has set his story. But you would never know it from The Commune. The cultural foment of the times is only truly present in the characters’ outfits, folkie soundtrack, and an outwardly ambivalent attitude about drawing strict lines regarding sexual partners. Even though the stitching together of an alternative family structure would seemingly present a rich trove of material for the screenplay to explore, Vinterberg and Lindholm keep more of their focus on the quickly played-out fracturing of Anna and Erik’s marriage.

Left hanging on the sidelines as little more than an observer in her parents’ self-absorbed melodrama is Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), their teenage daughter. At least, that’s what she’s supposed to be, but given how little interaction we see between Freja and her parents, she could almost be just another of the people in the commune. By paying too much attention to the love triangle of Anna, Erik and Emma, Vinterberg loses track of the other characters in the house. Because of that, when a last-act tragedy befalls one of the lesser-seen ones, the fact that Vinterberg scores it to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” makes the whole thing feel even more manipulative than it normally would.

Missing both the tightly wound plotting of Vinterberg’s The Hunt and the luscious romanticism of his Far from the Madding Crowd, The Commune is a modestly engaging broken-marriage story whose rippling tensions are muffled, rather than exacerbated, by the half-baked period drama it’s submerged in.

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