A story about the clash between personal desires, solidarity and tolerance in a Danish commune in the 1970s.
Referred to as “kommunalkas,” communal apartments appeared in Russia in the early 20th Century, each one housing several families to save living costs, post-revolution. Despite economic struggles (and arguably because of them), those families tended to bond, sharing intimate secrets with each other, along with showers and kitchen sinks. Originally from Russia, I’ve never actually lived in one but grew up watching Soviet films, “kommunalkas” serving as a common setting and a plot device/emotional catalyst. Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, folks still roomed with two or three families – generations that struggled to keep up with the rapid political changes, finding a perverse comfort in the necessity to share home space. They drank vodka and played guitars, reminiscing about the days of yore.
Thomas Vinterberg, a controversial director known for his visceral, “take-no-prisoners” filmmaking style, tones down the shtick big-time in his latest feature, “The Commune,” which reveals a similar living arrangement, only in the politically-unstable, 1970s Denmark. Here though, the formation of the titular commune is a conscious decision, made by its lead protagonists. An odd jumble of nostalgia (Vinterberg drew from personal experiences when making this film), “The Commune” is crammed with cultish undertones, half-baked political statements, intense-but-incomplete character studies and a mixed message at the end. Occasional welcome directorial trademarks – an abrupt cut here and there, a resonant, gritty realism to some of the proceedings – spice things up, but “The Commune” is essentially let down by its leader.
Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), an architecture professor, is faced with the choice of either selling his deceased father’s house for a good chunk of change or residing in it. His newscaster wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) pressures Erik to bring together a group of people and stay in the house. She does so with such inexplicable fervor (“I need to hear someone else speak. Otherwise I’ll go mad.”), possibly affected by the tumultuous cultural and political paradigm shifts, as well as her settled-in life, that her husband reluctantly agrees. A variety of characters – including the financially-strapped, leftist renegade (Lars Ranthe), a big ol’ cry-baby (Fares Fares) and a child with a heart condition (Sebastian Grønnegaard Milbrat) – move in, and hilarity ensues.
Only it doesn’t. We are firmly in Vinterberg territory here, as soft and confused as the man’s “mode” may be. Remember, this is the guy who got his start with Lars von Trier, a fellow bleak cinematic auteur and scathing critic of society. Despite the pop-rock/twangy throwback soundtrack (most of it in Danish and cheesy as hell), outbursts of unexpected sentimentality, especially evident in the maudlin resolution, the overtly 1970s embellishments and the patchy comedy, “The Commune” still manages to intermittently venture into some fascinating, dark places.
Just as alienated at home as he is at work, Erik cheats on his wife with the beautiful young Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann). When he reveals his infidelity, Anna acts nonchalantly, even going as far as proposing that Emma move in – which leads to Erik growing increasingly distant from Anna, who grows proportionally distant from the very “commune of love” she herself created. Other standouts include Emma’s awkward “initiation” into the “Big Love”-like abode, Anna’s emotional breakdown before a live broadcast, or the highlight: daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), walking in on her father cheating, followed by a phone call from her unsuspecting mother. I also like that Erik’s two loves look so much alike, the “new” vs the proverbial “old” (“Your eyes are brown,” Anna says. “Your eyes are blue,” Emma responds).
Dyrholm and Thomsen, having worked with Vinterberg on his 1998 masterpiece “The Celebration,” do all the heavy lifting. Dyrholm fares better, especially in the second half, when her character starts to disassemble, bit by bit. Thomsen plays a man on the edge, resentful of the new generation, humiliating his students for expressing unconventional ideas, exorcising his demons by sleeping with a girl half his age. Prone to outbursts of seizure-causing hysteria, he holds the screen, but his performance is somewhat one-note, his character not really evolving, save from one emotional breakthrough towards the end. As for the rest of the cast, they play second-fiddle to our heroes; we see them gather at dinner, exchange inconsequential remarks and go skinny-dipping (those Danes and their explicit nudity, gotta love it) – and that’s about the extent of it. Those characters’ blankness becomes grating over the film’s almost two-hour running time – and a particular letdown, considering the helmer’s usual deftness when it comes to handling actors.
Vinterberg seems confused here. Is his film about acceptance, the importance of sticking together and the corrosive effects of rejection? Or is it a study about idealism vs reality? Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale? A statement on political change and its effects on society? Maybe, it’s simply a retrospective glance back at the director’s own upbringing. Regardless, its messages are muddled, underdeveloped and dipped into sap.
There is a speech that a character makes at one point, about an experiment, wherein well-fed but untouched-by-human-hand babies perished, most likely due to the lack of human interaction. Ultimately that’s what I took away from “The Commune” – it’s about our instinctive need to flock together, our fear of being alone, of death. Too bad Vinterberg’s latest dies under its own lack of humanity, of a propelling momentum, so evident in his previous work, or those Russian “kommunalka” films I watched as a child (seek out Vladimir Bortko’s Bulgakov 1988 adaptation “Heart of a Dog”). It is mired by a lack of focus, an overblown conclusion… and certainly doesn’t warrant a “Celebration.”
“The Commune” opens in select theaters Friday, May 19th