Berlin 2016: The Commune review


The first person invited to live at the Copenhagen collective of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune is Ole (Lars Ranthe), a gregarious fortysomething with an unpredictable temper. He arrives carrying two plastic bags, one for his clothes, the other filled with leftist literature. A 1970s period drama grappling with the unsustainability of utopian living in Western society, Vinterberg’s latest sees the Danish director re-united with Festen star Ulrich Thomsen, yet any hope The Commune will match the devastating experience of his 1998 breakthrough are soon put to bed. We meet Erik (Thomsen), a lecturer in rational architecture, as he greets his family before viewing the mansion house he’s inherited from his father.

Erik wants to sell it, his daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen) wants them to move in, but his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) a popular television reporter, has a different plan. She has become bored of their humdrum life and, seeking a little more adventure, suggests they invite their friends to live with them – a decision she’ll soon learn to regret. Vinterberg initially does a fantastic job of turning this house into a home, and it isn’t long before a dozen women, men and children move into the house. The family dynamic they construct is best observed when Vilads (Sebastian Grønnegaard Milbrat), the commune’s youngest inhabitant, collapses in his mother’s arms whilst the group are singing Christmas songs. He’s rushed to hospital, but as the rest of the household sit at home by the phone, they grow increasingly frustrated at not being able to get any updates from the hospital because they’re not technically ‘family’. It seems that as hard as you try, it’s impossible to negotiate the rigid social construct of the biological family The house’s dynamic shifts when Erik falls in love with one of his students.

Anna’s response to Erik’s confession of infidelity showcases Dyrholm’s remarkable talent, her sedate and incredibly passive response, underlined by an unspoken frailty. Sadly once Vinterberg turns his gaze on Erik and Anna’s break-up it becomes clear that the film is too overcrowded to resonate emotionally and far too narrow sighted to enjoy the individual idiosyncrasies of the film’s talented cast; each reduced to little more than pieces of furniture. The Commune benefits from superb attention to period details, from the film’s folk-infused score to the chunky wool knitwear and suede jacks adorned by its cast. However, the film could do without the misogyny of the 1970s, with the full force of Erik’s impropriety inexcusably falling on Anna’s shoulders. Anna’s downfall is hard to swallow, especially when depicted with a total lack of subtly. As she finds herself more removed from the group it begins to affect her work, leading to one poignant, yet compromised scene where she breaks down moments before going live on air.

It’s a sequence bursting with feeling, yet its tempered by Vinterberg juxtaposing it with footage of a shared meal happening back at the house. Steffen (Magnus Millang) is regaling the rest of the group about an experiment where sixty new-born babies where tested on. They were split into two groups, one of which, although given enough substance to survive, was denied human contact and died as a result. The story results in a saccharine group-hug whilst Anna sits crying into the camera as the harsh studio lighting blurs her co-workers faces. She’s quite literally sat there facing the world alone. Loosely based on his own childhood experiences of living in similar conditions, The Commune is a film built around the intangibility and melancholy of childhood memories. What should have been a gritty work about a generation confronted with the implausibility of their beliefs is ultimately a banal and self-absorbed drama.

The 2016 Berlin Film Festival takes place between 11-21 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble