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The Commune Review: A New Take on Marital Compromise

By  · Published on September 10th, 2016

The Commune Delivers Lively Family Drama from Thomas Vinterberg

The latest from master Thomas Vinterberg is brilliantly conceived, yet non-innovative, exploration of marital compromise.

One of the most important figures in post-90s Danish cinema, Thomas Vinterberg has never been known for pleasantries. His most celebrated films have dealt with insanely heavy subject matter largely revolving around sexual abuse. His latest, The Commune, sees the provocateur trying something lighter. Shifting his tone, Vinterberg explores a more conventional family drama.

Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen – both of whom appeared in Vinterberg’s ground-breaking 1998 The Celebration – star as Anna and Erik, a seemingly contented middle-aged couple in the 1970s. When Erik’s father dies, the two inherit his large home and are left with two options. They can either sell the house for north of a million dollars, or live in it with their fourteen-year-old daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen). They choose the second option, but quickly deem the house too large for the three of them. Anna puts forward an interesting experiment, suggesting that they invite others to move in. Anna and Erik immediately begin interviewing potential housemates, thus initiating a commune.

Vinterberg – with the help of his frequently employed screenwriter Tobias Lindholm – adapts his stage play to an interesting result. While largely soap opera-like in content, The Commune utilizes the period it is set in to create a stimulating, lively environment. An affair quickly comes in the way of Anna and Erik’s happy marriage, allowing for plenty of hollering showdowns. While this dynamic has been played out countless times in other films, the setting of the commune allows it to remain entirely unique. In the placement of the home’s other residents, Vinterberg has created a sort of on-screen audience. Each of the couples confrontations, from the moment Erik tells his wife that he has slept with another woman to the excruciatingly awkward dinner with Erik’s mistress as a guest, play out in front of the couple’s housemates. Thus, in confronting their own reactions to the conflicts, the viewer is allowed to see how different people, from different socio-economic backgrounds, would react to the same situation.

Vinterberg’s films are usually known for their overbearing cinematic essence. When watching a Vinterberg film, the viewer is forced to acknowledge the form itself, due to the auteurs frequent visual audacity. In the case of The Commune, the influence of the theatre is much more predominant. Both in his use of the live-in onlooker and the step back he takes in filming the events, Vinterberg seems to acknowledge the theatricality on screen. The influence of screenwriter Tobias Lindholm (The Hunt, A War, and Danish TV sensation Borgen) can be felt throughout. Lindholm’s resume perhaps explains the overwhelming feeling that The Commune could be more effective as a television series. While moving nonetheless, the autobiographical story of Vinterberg’s childhood demands a larger platform. He offers so many rich characters, but is only allotted the time to properly explore the leading couple.

While the filmmaker’s approach is inimitable as expected, there is no denying a sense of banality found in the plot, especially when compared to Vinterberg’s other works, which are almost always jaw-dropping. A certainly admirable attempt in adapting the play, The Commune is plagued throughout by the fact that the events therein are seemingly routine of Scandinavian cinema. What ultimately allows the film to work successfully is evidenced in the relationship Vinterberg has built with Dyrholm and Thomsen. Through the simple, yet extremely dense, glances the two send to one another, the film is able to add to its well-conceived exploration of marital compromise. The scenes shared between the two, both tender and explosive, exude a fully realized understanding of married life. The relationship is so strongly built that it is thus able to sustain even the film’s more underwhelming moments.

The Commune is not peak Vinterberg. There are no shocking reveals, darkly comedic explorations of tragedy, nor formal innovations. Nevertheless, the film displays a fully realized and continually evolving auteurist gaze, bringing life to otherwise mundane material.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.