Thomas Vinterberg is the master of shocking revelation and painful discomfort. In his 1998 masterpiece, The Celebration, a birthday gathering to honor a beloved patriarch is rocked to its core when his son announces that he and his sister were sexually abused by the man as children. His 2012 film, The Hunt, dealt with similarly controversial subject matter, with Mads Mikkelsen as a beloved teacher accused of a terrible crime against children. In his latest picture, The Commune, Vinterberg has mellowed out a bit – not a long, but a bit. In fact, one could call his latest film “hopeful” and “optimistic”, something that’s a bit of a first for the filmmaker. But don’t let that fool you – The Commune is a rather perfect film about following our desires, and both the good and bad that can come from that traveled path. It’s one of the year’s best.
It’s Denmark in the 1970s, and laid-back, free-wheeling lifestyle has overtaken just about everyone. The holdouts include Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), a teacher/architect, and his wife, Anna (Trine Dyrholm), a famous newscaster. When Erik is bequeathed a gorgeous house close to the beach, Anna convinces him to bring in some friends and turn the place into a commune, where everyone has equal control and say over the governance of the home. She encourages this in a speech where she tells Erik that she is tired of hearing his stories over and over again and wants new voices in her life. Their young daughter is, of course, brought along for the ride. And so, Erik and Anna start holding interviews, trying to find the right individuals to make up their commune, including people they might not normally find advisable living mates.
The members of the commune end up being a colorful and eclectic lot, including a couple and their son, Vilads (Sebastian Gronnegaard Milbrat), who has a heart condition and meets people by telling them he is going to die when he is nine years old. Not long after the commune is formed, Erik starts having an affair with a student of his, and that is when the real drama of the story starts churning along. Anna tries, at first, to be okay with the arrangement and even offers for the girl to come and join the commune. She soon, however, succumbs to her reason, and can no longer handle another woman with her husband. The emotional clash between Erik and Anna turn the commune upside down as everyone must grapple with the philosophies of the commune versus their love and understanding for one another. The Commune will likely seem forward to an American way of thinking, but that’s what makes it all the more fascinating.
The general idea of The Commune seems to be everyone should be able to do whatever makes them happy, whenever they want. This is what compels Erik to keep having his affair and Anna to invite Erik’s lover into the commune, and fuels a rebuke against Anna when she expresses her inability to handle the relationship anymore. It becomes Anna’s burden to bear. Just because she is married to Erik and has a child with him, she should accept that he has found someone else that he loves, and deal with it however she can. This might seem like a sexist idea on the surface, but it’s actually far from that. This seems a universal principle, and we get the feeling that attitudes would be the same if it was Anna who was having the affair. I never once believed that Anna was being mistreated because she was a woman. She is a strong, confident woman. She has a successful job, and obviously “brings home the bacon” in the marriage. And, she’s the one who floats the idea of the commune in the first place, giving Erik very little choice but to comply.
That’s what makes The Commune so heartbreaking. It’s a film about a woman who feels bored with her marriage and wants to experience other people in her life, but simply cannot handle the consequences when her husband takes it one step further. I found myself entirely empathizing with Anna in the situation. But I also realized things are different in Denmark, and probably more so in the 1970s. There is a moment in the film – an awkward dinner conversation between the commune – that made me actually close my eyes from discomfort. You have members of the commune telling Erik and Anna that one of them needs to leave, but that they’ll need to figure that out for themselves. So you have Erik, who technically owns the house, and Anna, who created the commune in the first place. It’s an impossible situation that becomes even more impossible when their teenage daughter is asked to offer up her opinion on the matter.
Performances here are universally on point. As Anna, Trine Dyrholm has a difficult arc to master, slowly descending into an insecure shell of her former self. The Anna we see at the end of the film is nothing of the Anna we see at the beginning, and it’s Dyrholm’s masterful work that guides that transition with such a delicate hand. As Erik, Ulrich Thomsen gives us a character we just can’t feel anything but frustration for, yet we somehow see, at the end, that maybe things are working out the way they were always destined to work out. These are two powerhouse actors and their work here is awards worthy, to say the least. I really hope The Commune doesn’t get lost in the end of the year shuffle. I would say it is certainly the front-runner for Denmark’s submission to the Academy Awards®, and rightfully so.
Let me end my review with this: the scene of the year. It comes later in the film and revolves around one character in particular. It’s the perfection combination of laughter, frivolity – all the things we love about these characters together – and the perfect addition of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” By this point, you might already know what’s about to happen, but it doesn’t matter. It just works. And, it’s in this moment when it feels as if Thomas Vinterberg has crossed a threshold with his stories. The cynicism and cruelty are still there, but he has started peppering in something altogether unexpected: hope. The Commune is a must-see for fans of human beings and their stories carried out on screen. It’s a must-see for anyone who has followed, with great curiosity, the career of a man who came out of the Dogme 95 camp, and has blazed an unpredictable trail every step of the way since.