Anyone who has seen The Celebration, a Dogme film from 1998 by Thomas Vinterberg, knows that the Danish writer-director can take family dysfunction to extraordinary heights. That’s why his latest film, The Commune, feels so frustrating. Vinterberg has clearly proven himself as a storyteller interested in circumstances that lay bare failings of the most intimate of connections between people, but his approach recently has fallen short. Back in 2013 I had to forgive the unrelentingly cruel dramatic irony of The Hunt (Film Review: ‘The Hunt’ examines influence of the crime on judgement) for the film’s salient observation of the knee-jerk judgmental quality of people situated on the sidelines of terrible accusations. However, there seems little to forgive Vinterberg for in his latest.
Undercooked characters play off an overcooked domestic drama that no one should be surprised to see coming after a married couple in mid-’70s Copenhagen decide to open their home to several boarders. After Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), an architecture professor, inherits a house he fears is too large for his small family to afford, his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm), a television news anchor, suggests opening it as a commune. In scenes that capture the banality of their sex life, it seems they need something to spice up their connection, anyhow. Despite Erik’s doubts, Anna kicks it off by inviting a mutual friend, Ole (Lars Ranthe), who Erik describes as a fine drinking buddy but a terrible house guest. Soon enough Ole appears, walking toward the camera in slo-mo strides to some aggro guitar licks.
The Commune rolls along embracing its apparent inevitability with such obviousness as to be anti-climactic. After a series of interviews with a motley crew of potential roommates, they accept everyone, from an Arab who cries about being penniless to a couple with a 6-year-old son with a terminal illness (you know how that will end). Then they all get to wander the street with their own slo-mo soundtrack, a cheesy cover of the Who’s “Join Together.” It all feels very heightened, down the ‘70s wardrobe that’s overly saturated in pastel colors. All this heavy-handedness undoes the drama at the heart of the film: the unraveling of Erik and Anna’s marriage.
One dumb impulse leads to another, with the rest of the crew on the sidelines quickly finding tension in the pettiness of rooming together, accented by an ever-burning bonfire outside the house for casual revenge of destruction of one another’s property. The worse of the impulses being Erik’s affair with a student who moves into the commune to predictably disastrous effect. When Erik and Anna’s 14-year-old teenager, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), seems like the most intelligent character in the room, it’s hard to take any of the adults’ problems seriously. The problem is that the heart of the movie is about a marriage turned sour and everything else around it is just set dressing, including what should be a much more heartfelt subplot about a terminally ill yet charming 6-year-old boy. In the end, The Commune is nothing but the exhibition of a bunch of stupid people who set themselves up for predictable conflict via inevitable machinations of plot toward anti-climax.
The Commune runs 111 minutes, is in Danish with English subtitles and is not rated. It opened exclusively in our South Florida area on Friday, June 2, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.