Man. I guess people were so depressed in the seventies they’d try just about anything. As we live through a fast-forward remix of the Watergate scandal, it’s interesting to take a look back at those strange, hungover times. The Commune is a Danish film set in the seventies, so a rather different milieu than Nixon’s America. But societal malaise was pervasive in Western culture at that time. From the talented but uneven director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, The Hunt), The Commune is a loosely autobiographical film of his own experiences growing up in that era. It’s a spare tale of a marriage pushed too far, veering into melodrama.
Erik (Ulrich Thomson) is an architect teaching at the university. When his father dies, he inherits a very large house. While he’s eager to sell it, his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) convinces him otherwise. She craves new experiences in their staid marriage, and wants to keep the place, renting out the extra rooms to friends and strangers. The experiment strains their marriage in wholly predictable ways, but watching them attempt to be adult and understanding as their relationship unravels is painful and involving. It’s more “go with the flow” than “conscious uncoupling,” a naively admirable post-hippie attempt doomed to fail.
The denizens of the commune are a quirky bunch. They start out an interesting rogue’s gallery, but as the central plot takes over they’re largely relegated to the background. Based on Vinterberg’s successful play, the film manages some nice visuals but its structure feels stage-bound, with some of the final moments veering into manipulative melodrama (let’s just say there’s a clear Chekhov’s gun early on that’s too heavy handed in its payoff).
Some seventies tropes remain jarring. Everyone smokes everywhere. Erik can be a patriarchal asshole who would never get away with some of his stunts today (although current events make you wonder). But if the dissolution of a family in The Commune isn’t revelatory the way it is in Vinterberg’s superior drifting dream The Celebration, it’s still compelling. Thomson and Dyrholm (reunited from The Celebration) wring an arresting palette of emotions from each other. Ultimately, The Commune is a portrait of broken idealism. It’s only appropriate that the pieces never quite fit together.
The Commune opens this Friday, May 19th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and in limited release in the United States.