Film Review: The Commune

by Carrie Kahn on May 26, 2017

Come on and join together: Communal living, for better or worse 

Anna (Trine Dyrholm) and Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) face marital strains. 

Reuniting for the first time since their excellent 2013 Oscar-nominated picture The Hunt, the Danish directing/writing team of Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm have collaborated again on The Commune, a smart, sensitive, and well-acted picture based on Vinterberg’s 2011 play of the same name. While the duo share writing credit on the screenplay, Vinterberg alone takes the director’s reins. Here he returns to a Dogme 95-styled tight focus on story and character that successfully bypasses the trappings of melodrama to offer viewers an emotionally layered and thought provoking look at marriage and family in its many forms.

Vinterberg actually spent his childhood in a commune (communes were apparently quite the rage in 1970s Copenhagen) so it’s no surprise that he would be creatively inspired by his experiences. How much of The Commune — which similarly takes place in Copenhagen circa 1975 — is autobiographical, though, is hard to say; the picture is, after all, a dramatic feature and not a documentary, but the audience can have some fun wondering about which characters and story elements might have real life origins. We can guess that perhaps 14-year-old Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) may be Vinterberg’s surrogate here. She’s the daughter of Anna (Trine Dyrholm, who looks a bit like a young Helen Mirren) and Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), a couple who have inherited a house they can’t afford to live in. After a brief debate in which Anna ultimately convinces a reluctant Erik (“I need to hear someone else speak, otherwise I’ll go mad,” she tells him), they decide to invite housemates to share both the rent and the household and thus experiment with communal living, with all its attendant benefits and drawbacks.

And of course the more dramatically interesting drawbacks are the filmmakers’ focus. Ostensibly about communal living, the picture, is, at its core, actually a study of a long-term marriage (a nice double bill might be to pair this with the recent picture The Lovers; there’s a date night combo guaranteed to open the floodgates). The Commune’s great irony, however, is that while Anna is the one who initially pushes hardest for the commune, ultimately she’s the one who suffers most in it. The film’s trailer and several online synopses reveal the exact plot developments, but I would encourage you to forgo those, and to see the film fresh, in order to more fully and spontaneously experience the emotions the film provokes.

The commune residents vote in a new member.

Suffice to say that Dyrholm is tremendous as Anna, a local TV news anchor who becomes professionally and personally unraveled as things at home take an unexpected turn. Dyrholm won the Best Actress award at this film’s premier at the Berlin International Film Festival (the film itself was also nominated for the coveted Golden Bear Award), and it’s easy to see why. In a stunning contrast, Anna gradually moves from offering a cool, collected, almost oddly detached response to difficult news from her husband, to having a near breakdown on air; she also delivers a monologue to the commune residents that will break your heart. This type of performance is what the word “searing” is meant for, and I have no doubt the Berlin Best Actress Award is just one of many she’ll win as awards season picks up in the fall.

While Dyrholm is definitely the stand out, the rest of the large cast all carry their weight as well, with newcomer Hansen especially moving as Freja. Freja’s storyline is a bit reminiscent of the teenagers in The Ice Storm (1997), another 1970s-set film that deals with similar themes of intimacy, openness, and social mores in a shifting cultural landscape. And Thomsen, who was also paired with Dyrholm in Vinterberg’s 1998 film The Celebration (which no doubt helps create their palpable chemistry), has a few powerful scenes as Erik. One in particular near the picture’s end is so jarring and visceral that you may forget you are watching an actor at work.

Young Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) becomes increasingly aware of the cracks in her parents’ marriage.

The film’s themes are also underscored by its 1970s soundtrack; music by both The Who and Elton John figure prominently in pivotal scenes, in some of the best song/scene pairings seen on screen since The Big Chill (1983), itself another thematic cousin to this picture in terms of its examination of youthful idealism and gradual disillusionment and disappointment.

While not always easy, then, The Commune nevertheless rewards viewers with its complex character studies and its bittersweet look at ideas from a bygone era that many viewed with rose-colored glasses, only to have them cruelly shattered by a harsh, often unanticipated reality. Vinterberg remains an inviting and provocative voice not only in Scandinavian cinema, but on the international stage as well, and it will be exciting to see what he does next.

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The Commune opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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