Danish director Thomas Vinterberg who, along with Lars von Trier, drafted the original Dogme 95 manifesto, shot to prominence in 1998 with his searing drama "The Celebration." Since then he's made some very good films ("The Hunt," "Far from the Madding Crowd") but nothing that's come close to capturing the power of his cinematic take on repressed sexual abuse.
With "The Commune" he is back knocking at the door of the absorbing and disturbing, but not blowing it wide open.
Vinterberg actually grew up in a commune from age seven to 19. His director's statement in the press release reads: "It was a crazy, warm and fantastic time, surrounded by genitals, beer, high-level academic discussions, love and personal tragedies."
And as compelling as that statement is, we never actually experience enough of communal life to truly understand or feel what it was like in this movie.
Set in Copenhagen in the 1970s (and capturing the period perfectly), "The Commune" focuses on a married couple Anna and Erik (Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen, both superb in "The Celebration"). Anna is a restless TV anchor and Erik a sometimes whiny university architect. When Erik inherits his large childhood home and wonders how they will be able to afford to live there, it is Anna who sets the suggestion in motion to invite certain friends to move in and share their lives.
Anna and Erik never really give too much thought to whether their daughter, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom), would have problems living in such a milieu. And that spotlight on lousy parenting is one of the things the film gets right.
Vinterberg and co-screenwriter Tobias Lindholm have some fun with the selection process, and we meet the gaggle one by one, but the problem is that besides Anna and Erik none of the others are very interesting. Sure, some have fun idiosyncrasies, but they're not really developed beyond the one-note (with the odd exception of a pre-adolescent boy with a heart condition).
Things get truly messy when Erik begins an affair with one of his students, Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), who eerily (and I'm sure deliberately) resembles a young Anna. To be fair, Anna invites Emma to stay, setting up for a supremely awkward and volatile situation.
What makes this endeavor worthwhile and infinitely watchable is Trine Dyrholm's extraordinary performance as a woman who sees her life falling apart and has no clue how to salvage it. It's an exceptionally complex turn that reminded me of Liv Ullmann's startling work in several Ingmar Bergman films from the 1970s. As a matter of fact, the misogynistic treatment of women by Scandinavian men is boldly embodied by Thomsen. Eric is devoid of empathy. He's a cruel, selfish, yet weak husband, father, and lover, and a rather horrid friend. He sees women as things, not people. I found myself wishing his character was gay so he'd be forced to lock horns with another egomaniacal cad.
"The Commune" is deceptively titled because, at its core, is a truly penetrating look into a crumbling relationship and how the wife is forced to deal with it, practically on her own.
The supporting actors are fine but aren't allowed to do much beyond complain or not complain at group meetings. I almost wished for a longer film -- one that did explore the lives of a more compelling group of folks.
There's still a probing film to be made about the commune phenomenon of the '70s, but this is not it. Lukas Moodysson's "Together" is much better and more ensemble-driven.
What Vinterberg does get right is the collapsing marriage at the center of this commune representative of that eroding idealism that came with losing trust in our world leaders (our parental figures) in the 1970s. That feeling has certainly returned today -- with a vengeance.