Peace, Free Love and Understanding
Sydney Film Festival 2016
The Commune (2016)
The Copenhagen of the 1970s lurked groovily over the horizon like a seven-day saturnalia to anyone peering toward the source of all the noise from the wrong side of the North Sea at the time. But Thomas Vinterberg revisits the environment of his childhood in "The Commune" and is careful to make it seem brittle, awkward and potentially corrosive to domestic harmony, full of the same misjudged fumblings toward happiness as everywhere else. Based primarily on a play by Mr. Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov and more distantly on the director's own experiences, its characters are either helplessly insensitive or just hard of thinking, as well as adrift in an ocean of beige.
Or at least, the males are. "The Commune" shows TV-newsreader Anna (Trine Dyrholm) and university lecturer Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) inheriting a large house and deciding to start a commune with their teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), some close friends and a few passing Danish oddballs. Things go swimmingly — even comically — until Erik's head is turned by his very fetching student Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), and the fuse for deep trouble is lit.
The film chooses to keep all sign or smell of actual 1970s Copenhagen out of things; an odd decision, since without any sense of the social tides and sexual liberations going on outside, all that's then really left is an intelligent woman suffering at the hands of a horny dolt in a house full of oddly chaste observers. Mr. Thomsen, relegated too often to sub-Donald Pleasence menace when he ventures into English, is an unlikely goat — although the actor's demeanor suggests he knows this to be the case — and Ms. Dyrholm is simply all class. Their meltdown, though, is prosaically painful one-way traffic. Anna eventually asks Emma to join the commune, a decision of bottomless implications and glacial complexities which the film skates blithely over, leaving only Anna's supposed character flaws visible in its wake. Meanwhile, Ms. Dyrholm's eyes say plenty about quiet desperation.
More cultural observation might have helped. Or perhaps it might only have reminded a viewer from the other side of the North Sea that in the same period as "The Commune" is set, he could watch the BBC's "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" — the one in which Reggie (Leonard Rossiter) buys a house and sets up a commune for the middle-aged middle-class, eventually hosting lost souls such as an unemployed careers officer, a pre-stressed concrete salesman and a black teacher who hates his job but can't get sacked. Only a braver swim in the relevant cultural waters than Mr. Vinterberg opts for could have put the communal knife in as meticulously as that.