After adeptly dipping his toe into the very English material of “Far From The Madding Crowd,” terrific Danish director Thomas Vinterberg returns to home soil for his new film. “The Commune” (“Kollektivet”) isn’t as dark as most of his output, from “Festen” to “The Hunt,” but despite its nostalgic comic surface it packs a characteristic emotional punch.
It’s the mid-'70s. When an architect, Eric (Ulrich Thomsen), inherits his father’s enormous house in an upmarket suburb of Copenhagen, his first thought is to sell it. But Eric’s TV newsreader wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) and teenage daughter Freja like the idea of actually living in it; more than that, Anna wants to fill it with people and introduce a spark into her marriage. “I need a change,” she tells her husband, “I need to hear someone else speak.”
This rather serious man has to take that one on the chin, and acquiesce. And soon they’ve interviewed potential house-mates — old friends and new people, none of whom seems particularly desirable — to join a so-called commune in which Eric and Anna pay most of the bills.
The honeymoon period of this social experiment involves group skinny-dipping, dancing around the bonfire, happy-chatty shared meals and comic house meetings, with items generally geared towards making life even cheaper for the freeloaders among them.
But Vinterberg and his regular co-writer (and director in his own right) Tobias Lindholm are playing a sly game with us, not just with the jaunty tone, but with the suggestion that Eric — never comfortable with the commune idea and wanting his family to himself — is in danger of losing his wife in some way to the group. In fact, it's Anna's position in the relationship that becomes threatened, and her attempts to remain true to the communal ethos make her predicament infinitely more painful.
Vinterberg himself lived in a commune between the ages of seven and 19, a “crazy, warm and fantastic time,” he says, that has afforded a springboard for his story. Whether the drama that develops is also borne of real life isn’t clear; either way, its eventual dominance makes the narrative feel increasingly conflicted, between the house and the family. Aside from Eric, Anna and Freja, none of the members of the commune are developed beyond the sketchy profiles of their house interviews; and since they’re pretty vapid individuals, unable to engage or offer support when it’s needed, they barely register when not called upon to provide an easy laugh. Even if Vinterberg intended this as a comment on the superficiality of community living (which I doubt), it really doesn’t help the film dramatically to have so many characters wasting space.
And so, ultimately, this is less the social satire it may have been, and more a marital drama with a twist, propelled by good work from Thomsen (the star of Vinterberg’s startling debut “Festen") and particularly Dyrholm; Anna's struggle to control her emotions as her life is falling apart is terrible to watch, the slow breakdown as she’s about to go on air a tour-de-force.
By all accounts, '70s Copenhagen had fewer fashion faux
pas than other countries, though there are
still some lamentable suede jackets and kipper ties to enjoy. And Vinterberg
offers a succession of lovely touches to keep us in his groove, not least among
them the sight of Freja (a quietly watchful performance by Marthe Sofie Wallstrøm
Hansen) having sex, probably for the first time, while her mum is reading the
news on a TV in the corner — giving a new meaning to “breaking news.”