(photo credit: Courtesy)
Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film, The Commune, is well acted and often entertaining, but ultimately a disappointment.
Vinterberg burst onto the world cinema scene in the late ‘90s as one of the leaders of the Dogme 95 movement. This was a group of filmmakers who proposed a manifesto for making movies that would give them authenticity and depth. Among the Dogme guidelines was that movies had to take place in real time, use no music other than what characters listened to or played in the course of the film, and be filmed in real locations – no sets allowed.
It might all sound rather, well, dogmatic, but Vinterberg’s 1998 movie, The Celebration, was such a dramatic, well acted and heartfelt film that it put the movement front and center in the moviegoing world. The story of the reunion of an extremely troubled family, it was Vinterberg’s talent as a storyteller and for getting intense performances from his actors that made the film memorable, not its adherence to Dogme rules. The Dogme directors moved away from the movement’s principles quite quickly, and Vinterberg’s later films never equaled the intensity of The Celebration.
When I read that The Commune was based on Vinterberg’s experiences growing up in a Copenhagen commune, and that it starred several of The Celebration’s actors, among them Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm, I had extremely high expectations. But while the movie is polished and well acted, it ends up mired in conventional, even melodramatic storytelling.
It starts out with an intriguing premise. Two Copenhagen professionals, Erich (Ulrich Thomsen), an architect and academic, and Anna (Trine Dyrholm), a television anchorwoman, inherit a huge house in Copenhagen’s suburbs.
Erich wants to sell it, but Anna feels, given that it’s the ‘70s, the best idea would be to invite a bunch of interesting people to share it with them and their teenage daughter.
Erich doesn’t seem particularly interested in the idea, but the more free-spirited Anna craves new experiences, and so he agrees. They invite an old friend who is a self-styled revolutionary, another domestic couple who have experience with communal living, a dramatic and promiscuous woman, and others, among them Allon (Fares Fares), a nervous guy with no friends.
But these are all types more than full-fledged characters, and their interactions rarely rise above the sitcom level. There are some especially soapy touches here, among them a subplot concerning a child with a severe heart condition who is part of the commune.
The conflict in the story finally arrives when Eric starts an affair with Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann, who happens to be Vinterberg’s second wife), one of his students, a gorgeous, docile young woman about 15 years younger than his wife. When Anna finds out about this relationship, influenced by the spirit of the times she invites Emma to move into the commune, a move all their comrades approve. The true drama in the film is how Anna starts to fall apart whens she tries to play it cool and politically correct by denying her true feelings of jealousy and betrayal.
The movie is kept afloat by the extremely lively and likable Dyrholm’s performance as Anna.
You can feel the depth of her pain as she tries to hang on to her husband by pretending to be at peace with the idea of stepping aside calmly as he brings his lover into their house. Dyrholm is one of Denmark’s leading actresses, and she won the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival for this performance. You may have seen her on the miniseries The Legacy, or starring opposite Pierce Brosnan in the rom-com Love Is All You Need. Everything in the movie feels a bit lightweight alongside the raw power of her work.
Ulrich Thomsen, whom Israelis may recognize from the Oscarnominated short film Ada, seems petulant and unlikable from the start, although he is certainly handsome.
The only part of this story that really uses the commune setting is Anna’s attempt to live with the situation. All the other comic and dramatic possibilities of communal life are wasted here.’