Review: Thomas Vinterberg's 'The Commune' Nearly Lives Up To Its Potential

A little known fact about Danish director Thomas Vinterberg is that he grew up in a commune in the 1970s, an experience which must have painted his mixed outlook on them in The Commune. In America we hear about a group of unrelated people living together in a single home and sharing common goals ,beliefs, and occasionally lovers, and we immediately think "cult" with all of the negative connotations that come with it. Vinterberg doesn't so much paint a rosy picture of just such a society as he does smear a bit of mud over the idealism that causes such communities to form in the first place.

In that respect, The Commune fits perfectly into the canon of a director who has routinely made films about disruption of social norms, whether it be his breakout film The Celebration, his recent Cannes award winner The Hunt, or even his most mainstream effort, Far from the Madding Crowd.  But unlike those, there's a softness and a warmheartedness that doesn't always mesh with some of the darker themes Vinterberg is eager to explore, making this a solid effort but not one of his true masterworks.

Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen (both of The Celebration) play bored 1970s married couple Anna and Erik. She wants a change from their smallish life, saying "It's like I've heard it all before" at her college professor husband's stories. After inheriting his father's huge home in Copenhagen, Erik is convinced by Anna to start a commune. Having grown up in one as a child, Erik has obvious reservations, which are only compounded by the people Anna wants to bring into the fold. Most are old friends that he knows their problems far too well, while others are strangers of questionable value to the whole. A commune is only as strong as its weakest link, after all. Fares Fares plays one member of the commune who can't seem to hold a job, can't pay his rent, and cries at any mention of his failures. Others are sexually promiscuous, have tendencies towards arson, or health-related concerns.

If the goal of a commune is that a rising tide lifts all boats, it does seem to work for a while. The house booms with laughter and joy, skinny-dipping trips, and more, with the only tension the regular house meeting to address grievances (cue the tears). But if it's true that it takes a village to raise a child it doesn't seem to be the case for Anna and Erik's mousy teenage daughter, Freya (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), who instead finds herself lost in all of the big personalities and seeks comfort elsewhere. Meanwhile, her parents' marriage crumbles anyway when Erik begins dating Emma (Vinterberg's wife Helene Reingard Neumann), a student who looks like she could be Anna's youthful doppelganger.

I kept waiting for Vinterberg to introduce some of the political tensions of the era into the mix, but other than a few mentions on TV it never occurs. The squabbles that erupt inside the house are fairly benign, and there isn't a lot of tension until Erik and Anna's relationship falls apart, made worse when Emma starts spending more time under their roof. There are also missed opportunities with such an expansive group of colorful, expressive characters, many of which don't get enough time to shine. However, it's hard to fault Vinterberg for focusing on the astonishing performances by Dyrholm and Thomsen, the former having won the Silver Bear at Berlin. As Anna is faced with one disappointment after another by this idyllic situation of her own creation, Dyrholm slowly reveals the extent to which she is suffering until it bursts forth in heartbreaking fashion.

Vinterberg steers into sentimentality and it never quite feels natural for him or the story he's trying to tell. He eventually regains enough footing for a bittersweet conclusion that is more in line with what we expect from the filmmaker, who has always expressed his vision without compromise. The Commune doesn't go quite as far as Vinterberg could have taken it, which is disappointing since the subject is so rarely covered without scandal. Even if it's less frank than his earlier work, The Commune is still impeccably made and acted. Vinterberg has hit such an extremely high mark for quality that even a slight disappointment is still a worthwhile experience.

Rating: 3 out of 5