The Commune: In Good Company

The Commune (Kollektivit)
(Denmark/Sweden, 111 min.)
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, Writ. Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Ulrich Thomson, Trine Dyrholm, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Fares, Magnus Millang
Trine Dyrholm in The Commune
Courtesy Pacific Northwest Pictures
After hitting a career-high with his sumptuously sensitive adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd (one of this blog's favourite films of 2015), Danish director Thomas Vinterberg heads home with The Commune. It’s a true homecoming in several ways for the director who, along with Danish enfant terrible Lars Von Trier, is one of the names behind the stripped-back, no frills Dogme 95 style. Far from the Madding Crowd might be as far from the chastity of the Dogme school as a filmmaker can get (aside from Marvel movies), but Vinterberg finds higher ground after the bigger project. The Commune draws upon Vinterberg’s childhood experience of growing up in a commune and the filmmaker interrogates his relationships with women in this excellent period drama/love triangle that adapts the filmmaker’s unique voice to the accessible sheen of mid-sized prestige pics like Madding. It’s one of the year’s best and most surprising films.

The Commune stars Danish film stars Ulrich Thomson (In a Better World) and Trine Dyrholm (ARoyal Affair) as married couple Erik and Anna who decide to purchase the former’s childhood home. Erik’s father’s house is too big for the couple and their daughter, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), as the husband notes that the big empty space causes a family to drift apart. Anna, somewhat presumptuously, suggests they use the extra space for communal living and invite friends to help share the rent. She makes the suggestion only after she’s asked some friends to join the family, though, and The Commune gives Erik and Anna a rocky first step as their family enters a new phase.

Anna experiences this dynamic most gravely. While she’s the mind behind the happy commune, and she radiates like a free spirit when the commune grows, she tests her desire for “shared living” when Erik informs her of an affair. He’s doing it with one of his students, Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), a leggy blonde who looks a lot like a youthful trade-in on the still beautiful Anna. Anna, rather than lose the man she loves, invites Emma into the home with the “more the merrier” spirit of the commune. Poor life choices, not unlike Bathsheba Everdene leading on Mr. Boldwood or marrying Sergeant Troy while trying to keep Mr. Oak’s affection. Hearts, like houses, are fickle things when shared.

Dyrholm anchors the film with a masterful performance as Anna. The Communes opens after Dyrholm won a well-deserved Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival and she gives the kind of performance that would sweep the accolades of next winter if the film were an American production. Dyrholm is shattering as Anna loses her grasp of everything she holds dear. A latter act on-air breakdown in her TV studio is a tour de force of silent acting as feelings of regret, loneliness, guilt, rejection, and loss puncture the composed mask she wears at home and at work. The commune’s a world where everything is meant to be open, though, and this performance is very affecting as an example of a soul caught between idealism and reality: what hope is there for happiness when Anna gives everything to the commune and her husband’s concern is only “me,” “me,” and “me”?

The Commune captures the bittersweetness of this surrogate family as it tries to create a utopia in a world that simply moves at a different pace. Vinterberg, writing in collaboration with Tobias Lindholm (A War, A Hijacking), delivers a film that's both intimately personal, yet as open and accessible as the inviting space that Anna and Erik strive to create. The house thrives in an aura of golden gaiety in its early days as the convivial spirit of the housemates reflects the eagerness to better the lives of others to which all good communities should aspire. They discuss matters openly and plainly, giving voices equal weight and using dialogue and mutual respect to ensure that everyone has the best experience possible. They take turns cooking meals and pitch in to help friends with less financial security. The atmosphere invites acceptance and confidence, which the film notes in Freya’s plunge into the sexual revolution. The energy of the commune motivates her just as much as Erik’s infidelity does, and Vinterberg contrasts these two budding relationships to show how romance fades or thrives if relationships are built with respect and love.

All good things fade, though, and Vinterberg notes the rapid dissolution of the commune’s utopian spirit in one unexpected dramatic turn that deflates the warmth in the air. The Commune, now drenched in a cold silvery hue, asks what happens when the honeymoon ends and reality returns. A tempest of emotions rolls into the commune with this twist of fate, most notably Anna’s bitter realisation that she risks losing everything—her husband, her family, and her successful career on television—by encouraging her family to take a risk and embrace the uncertain thrill of change.

The vibrancy and urgency of Vinterberg’s aesthetic is even more prevalent when natural light sparkles into the frame.  While Far from the Madding Crowd remains Vinterberg’s most cinematic work with its sumptuous canvas, The Commune is equally fine for how well it situates the director’s sensibility within the means of a fuller production. It’s more polished than his Oscar nominated The Hunt, yet The Commune doesn’t feel like Vinterberg selling out. It just takes the foundational elements of story and character from the director’s work and uses the extra layers of lighting, costuming, and music to give a bittersweet sense of a fleeting Camelot.

The Dogme elements come into play with the centrality of the singular setting. The commune, like a big soundstage, boat, or farmhouse, gives a locus to the drama as most of the action centres within its walls. The space is open and freeing, as Vinterberg shows us with the gaiety that ripples through the air. It’s also a place of suffocation and isolation. There’s no feeling worse than living in a community and being alone. The Commune most eloquently—and devastatingly—conveys the crush of idealism when Vinterberg holds close on Anna’s grief-stricken and watery eyes. The Commune shows a fine director in his element and a great actress in her prime. Good company, indeed.

The Commune opens May 19 in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on June 9.