Following the pretty, well-mounted but curiously anonymous “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Danish director Thomas Vinterberg returns to territory much closer to home with the shaggy, partly autobiographical dramedy “The Commune.” Loosely inspired by Vinterberg’s own childhood experiences growing up on a Danish collective, the film teases a combination of the director’s most intimate film (“Festen“) with his most provocative (“The Hunt“), while also adding a dimension of personal insight into an excitingly arcane world, all wrapped up in an appealing period bundle. On paper. Disappointingly though, that paper doesn’t appear to have been the script for “The Commune,” which falls vastly short of its promise, and through a combination of cursory characterization, blunt relationship dynamics, surprisingly timid sexual politics and non-existent social commentary, amounts to not much more than a nicely lit kitchen-sink soap opera. Or at best, a feature-length pilot for a TV show that gets a pass only because it hints at all the richer storylines that will develop in forthcoming episodes.
This is especially depressing because, as a Vinterberg fan, and even as an occasional apologist (I have even been known to go to bat for the much unloved “Dear Wendy“), I’m especially fond of his collaborations with writer Tobias Lindholm (whose last directorial film, “A War” is so, so good). But the penetrating sharpness of their previous work together, which found compelling ways to scalpel apart the fabric of family life and place the slivers in a grander social context, is wholly absent here. Most damningly, the usually clean and progressive lines of the modern Nordic drama become tangled here by a narrative that too often lets the mores of the 1970s go unexamined and unremarked upon. This has the effect — hopefully unintended — of making it seem like the film condones the underlying conservatism and sexism of the characters. Certainly it’s the least appealing, most selfish character Erik who is rewarded, while punishment is largely reserved for his wife Anna, whose crime would appear to be “getting older.” You would think that her breakdown might be a cunning way to dissect the nature of the support network that a commune should represent, but you would be wrong.
Anna (Trine Dyrholm, who’s very good in such a dubiously intentioned role) is a well-known TV news anchor whose insipid university lecturer husband Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) inherits a sprawling house upon the death of his estranged father. Mostly out of boredom, Anna suggests that instead of cashing in, they, along with their young teenaged daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) could invite some friends to come live with them, to fill the house with life and to help out with the massive rent and upkeep. Mutual friend Ole (Lars Ranthe) is the first to sign up, and others follow, including two couples, one with a small boy who has a congenital heart defect, as well as a free-spirited young woman and a Middle Eastern man whom they’re essentially guilted into accepting. It’s all skinny dipping and tipsy communal dinners for a while, until Erik begins an affair with one of his students, the 24-year-old Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann). Freja finds out, which forces him to confess to Anna and to choose, whereupon he chooses Emma. Trying to maintain the idealism of the commune while also experiencing the end of her 15 year marriage and the onset of menopause, Anna suggests that Emma move in.
Even without the unnecessary and somewhat tedious subplots involving Anna’s job, the sick little boy and Freja’s first boyfriend, you can see how this is a situation pregnant with possibilities for conflict and tension. But almost none of that is really made manifest. Particularly surprising in this regard is the complete lack of bed-hopping: excepting Erik’s affair, which essentially amounts to serial monogamy, no one sleeps with anyone else’s spouse, there is no hint of homosexual attraction anywhere and nobody even experiences improper sexual jealousy bar Anna pining for her own husband. Of all the many missed opportunities “The Commune” represents, the almost prudish, PG lack of sexual shenanigans is surely the most inexplicable and the most disappointing to those of us for whom the words “Danish” and “commune,” especially in the context of the free-love 1970s, almost immediately suggest a bit of a bonkfest.
Without that dimension, after a zippy, bubbly beginning (the interviewing-new-housemates section is fun), the film quickly begins to deflate, and then bafflingly devolves further into a very ordinary story of a older man falling for a younger version of his wife. The other members of the commune are barely developed beyond the vaguest outline —Fares Fares is utterly wasted as Allon, whose sole defining trait is a tendency to burst into tears when confronted, while the rest of the cast is mostly distinguishable by hair color or mentally dubbing them “the strict one,” “the fat one,” etc.
This is perhaps the biggest failing of “The Commune”: it’s not about the commune at all. In fact, the plot as it plays out could more or less have happened with a cast of four —the family unit and the interloper Emma. There’s next to no exploration of the commune’s internal dynamics, no commentary on the folly or nobility of trying to live to utopian principles in a distinctly un-utopian world, and no examination of the sort of hubristic idealism it takes to decide that a small group is going to radically rewrite the way people have lived for centuries. But despite presenting an environment enriched to weapons-grade plutonium levels with potential for interpersonal drama, Vinterberg can’t seem to find any, and elects instead to focus on Anna’s menopausal crisis.
That might be an admirable avenue to explore, if only he didn’t do it with such a palpable tinge of disdain: Dyrholm’s performance goes some way to make Anna sympathetic, but all other cues encourage us to take sides against her, like everyone else does. Perhaps the taste it leaves wouldn’t be quite so sour if there was any sense that the commune, which she instigated, has been compromised by its treatment of her. But the troubling inference of “The Commune,” upbeat music cues, clinking glasses and all, is that somehow, all of this is for the best, and everyone’s got exactly what they deserved. [C]