There is a wealth of promise in the story, but The Commune relegates itself to a fairly rote marriage disintegration narrative.
Thomas Vinterberg’s oeuvre has been fairly consistently hyper-focused on love, family life and community dynamics. From his Dogme 95 days to The Hunt, his films are pointed and candid, and unabashedly so. A film about a commune in the ’70s, then, seems like a project rife for Vinterberg’s touch. But The Commune, penned by Tobias Lindholm, gives audiences a well-established setting but a plot that doesn’t carry through on its promises. At the heart of the film is an emotionally fraught disintegrating marriage, played expertly by Trine Dyrholm. But that doesn’t leave much room for any development of the secondary commune characters, nor justify their narrative purpose.
The film begins with news anchor Anna (Dyrholm) and professor Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) exploring the mansion he has just inherited and playing hide and seek with their daughter, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen). They can’t afford to live there, but rather than sell it, Anna twists Erik’s arm, convincing him to take part in an experiment, namely making the house a commune. They interview old acquaintances but, mostly, quirky people who really don’t seem to be able to contribute to the bills. There’s the sensitive Allon (Fares Fares), ladies’ man Ole (Lars Ranthe), free spirit Mona (Julie Agnete Vang), and Ditte (Anne Gry Henningsen) and Steffen (Magnus Millang) and their son Vilads (Sebastian Grønnegaard Milbrat) whose morbidity stems from a lingering heart condition. You expect drama among the nine members, but their makeshift family is surprisingly strong.
Lindholm’s script doesn’t turn on in-fighting but focuses on how communal living changes these characters’ perspectives, and for the worse. This time period comes with the notion of free love, but Erik, being so initially opposed to the idea, would seem to be the least likely to latch onto alternative social behaviors. When he gets to know his beautiful student Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), that all changes. Why not love two women? Why not incorporate Emma into the commune? For Anna, this new world of being open and living for the good of the commune means she questions whether sharing her true feelings on the matter is right. Their experiment, then, is freeing and restricting, respectively.
Certainly, Dyrholm portrays a woman dealing with her husband slipping away with perfect pitch rawness, but The Commune misses the mark by crafting its story around a central couple, the owners of the house no less, rather than exploring the dynamics of the commune. Their story could be told without the surrounding tale of a commune; such a shift in lifestyle wouldn’t be the only way to spur Erik’s thoughts of polygamy, especially in the ’70s. And sequences that bring us back to minor characters don’t add to Erik and Anna’s story. They’re solidly part of the deep subplot, a distraction from the ultimate narrative.
Even while Lindholm and Vinterberg don’t justify the social setting, The Commune doesn’t focus its creative energies any more or less on presenting a visually raw glimpse of an integral part of the hippie movement. Where the film lacks in social dynamics, it equally lacks in social commentary, presenting the era merely through a few news snippets. There is a wealth of promise in the story, but The Commune relegates itself to a fairly rote marriage disintegration narrative.