DIR: Thomas Vinterberg • WRI: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg • PRO: Sisse Graum Jørgensen, Morten Kaufmann • DOP: Jesper Tøffner • ED: Janus Billeskov Jansen, Anne Østerud • MUS: Fons Merkies • DES: Niels Sejer • CAST: Ulrich Thomsen, Fares Fares, Trine Dyrholm
Thomas Vinterberg has come a long way since Festen – the Dogme 95 manifesto has been fed into the shredder and the handheld cameras have been packed away. But his urge to prod the shaky foundations of liberal society remains, and The Commune is another delve into the dreams, drives and fears that lurk beneath middle-class life.
It’s the mid-seventies. Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), a professor of ‘rational architecture’, inherits his father’s large Copenhagen house. Delighted by its value, and thinking it too big for his current family of three, he plans to sell. But his newsreader wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) has other ideas – bored with the repetitions of conventional middle age, she sees an opportunity to fulfil her dream of a shared, stimulating living space. Erik’s misgivings are put aside: the commune is born and swiftly populated by a spectrum of bohemian friends and, somewhat inexplicably, a penniless immigrant who keeps bursting into tears.
Some of what follows is predictable enough, as idealistic purity is gradually muddied by complex feelings and repressed resentment. But this is not the standard morality tale you might expect – the conflict that develops is almost entirely focussed on Erik, Anna and their daughter, while the commune itself – so often portrayed as the clichéd cause of selfish excess – is actually a fairly stable backdrop to their troubles.
The Commune is lighter than much of Vinterberg’s previous work. There’s a mildly satirical, farcical feel to much of the action – partly because this particular commune is spectacularly middle class, and a far cry from the hedonistic images usually associated with such places. Yes, the talk is open and the alcohol flows, but this is no High Rise-style anarchy. Instead, we’re not too far from a typical house share, with kitchen meetings about cooking rotas and arguments over who drank all the beer.
Unfortunately, this tone creates a problem. The Commune is clearly a film that seeks to link ’70s political struggles with the hopes and fears of his main characters, but the end result is a little muddled. While there’s a gentle mocking of the characters’ nonconformist spirit, the action often veers into moments of real tenderness and raw emotion as Erik and Anna’s marriage crumbles. Meanwhile, the ideological tensions of the time – militant unions, the horrors of south east Asia – are a constant presence around the edges of the story. These very different ingredients never quite blend into a satisfying whole, and there’s a nagging sense that The Commune is trying to do too much at once.
Visually, the film also feels slightly out of kilter with some of its themes. There’s a softness to the ’70s setting – a warm palette that disregards the usual grim, gritty footage of the era. Although not a problem in itself, this cosy aesthetic sometimes jars with the darker elements of the plot: loss of childhood innocence, the terror of aging, the post-hippie comedown.
These shortcomings are a shame, because the film contains more than a few moments of cinematic excellence – Vinterberg’s habit of allowing the camera to linger on a face for those extra few seconds brings out the best in his actors, and Trine Dyrholm gives an especially touching performance as she stares down the barrel of emotional collapse.
Interesting, occasionally poignant and perfectly watchable, The Commune is well-paced, well-written and well-made – but it is far from Vinterberg’s best. And while there’s no disgrace in failing to reach the heights of Festen or The Hunt, he will inevitably be judged by his own high standards. On this occasion he falls just short.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Commune is released 29th July 2016