The Commune (Kollektivet)
Denmark (2016) Dir. Thomas Vinterberg
In following up his last film, an English language version of Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Vinterberg not only returns to his native language but to his Dogme 95 roots with this adaptation of his own stage play Kollektivet, which is based on his firsthand experiences of growing up in a middle classed communal environment as a child.
Set in 1970’s Copenhagen, architecture professor Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) inherits his late father’s family mansion, which he and his wife, TV news anchor Anna (Trine Dyrholm), along with teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen), feel unable to afford the rent on alone. Anna suggests they turn it into a commune where everyone helps with the expenses and create and exciting atmosphere.
After a number of interviews they settle on heavy drinking old friend Ole (Lars Ranthe), ditzy Mona (Julie Agnete Vang), couple Ditte (Anne Gry Henningsen) and Steffen (Magnus Millang) with their young son Vilads (Sebastian Grønnegaard Milbrat) and shy jobless Allon (Fares Fares). This eclectic dynamic works very well as a collective until Erik’s affair with student Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann) threatens to ruin it.
Comparisons to Lukas Moodysson’s Together might be an immediate stance to take for some viewers but in reality, the two films only share a central concept and period setting. Moodysson’s work is a satirical essay on Hippy ideals in a socio-political context; Vinterberg presents us with a melodrama that posits similar tenets against affairs of the heart.
The folly of disparate people living together under one roof can be explored in modern day reality TV like Big Brother et al, but during the era of Peace and Love, the communal ideal was based on more innocent Bohemian motives beyond a lack of funds. However, it is a wonder how Anna as a TV celeb doesn’t have a salary capable of funding the upkeep of a modest mansion, when her family clearly enjoys an upper middle class lifestyle.
Everything is subject to a group vote, but Ole assumes control despite the initial “no single boss” rule or the fact Erik actually owns the house. This allows Ole to instil his own will on the household in a surreptitious manner – To wit: Allon, who cries the hint of conflict or if he thinks he has upset someone, complains his stuff is missing. Ole has burned it because it was “laying around”, therefore no-one had any need for it.
The most curious character, who gets very little screen time yet proves to be a catalyst for change, is Vilads, the young lad who tells everyone he won’t live to be 9 years-old. At first this is accepted as a childish quirk, until it is revealed that he has a rare and potentially fatal heart condition.
It feels a bit cruel and manipulative to use a child in this manner but the message is clear that we can waste time on trivial things when that which is important to us can be tragically fleeting and precious. While Vinterberg gets no points for subtlety – using Goodbye Yellow Brick Road as musical accompaniment for example – he does hit the target through effectiveness and emotional resonance.
Elsewhere Vinterberg is a little cheeky in exploring the influence living in an open and carefree environment can have on a teenager. Despite her quite nature and Vilads being the closest one to her age, 14 year-old Freja notices the lack of concern about the age gap between Erik and Emma, so she pursues an older boy Peter (Rasmus Lind Rubin) and sleeps with him, while mum Anna is on the TV behind them reading the news.
Yet the central love triangle prevents this film from being an ensemble piece which the diversity of the characters and their interactions initially hints at. Instead, the other housemates are simply there to make up the numbers during rare moments of convivial unity and celebration, or to stoke the flames of the conflict.
Erik is upfront with Anna about his adultery, which elicits the shock suggestion from Anna that Emma moves into the house with them. Amazingly, Emma agrees but doesn’t play the usurping game as Erik’s lover, or rubs it in Anna’s face. The two women do actually get on for the sake of the group harmony, but something has to give, and the final third of the film deals with this is in an astute melancholic fashion.
Anyone familiar with Vinterberg’s catalogue will recognise not just the returning cast members but the awkward, unbearable atmosphere of his breakthrough work Festen here, both films sharing the public disintegration of a family unit. It is hard not to share the discomfort of the shocked housemates as a paranoid and emotionally fraught Anna breaks down over dinner.
Trine Dyrholm might be mostly familiar to fans of the TV series The Legacy but she cut her teeth as a Vinterberg regular, and rewards the director and the audience with her dynamic yet devastating essay of Anna’s downward spiral from idealistic woman who had everything to the human equivalent of a punctured spare tyre.
Ulrich Thomsen brings a complimentary intensity to Erik’s journey from bewildered heir to a mansion to combustible lothario at odds with the Bohemian world he was thrust into. Helene Reingaard Neumann – aka Mrs. Vinterberg – acquits herself well against these two assured veterans as Emma, oddly painting her in a sympathetic light.
Production values show the odd flourish of the big budgets Vinterberg has worked with recently yet he hasn’t completely abandon the Dogme 95 doctrine either. Relying on handheld camerawork and natural light, Vinterberg allows the actors to create the intensity and drama. The washed out colour palette and closely observed set designs add plenty to the 1970’s aesthetic.
The Commune is a curious film that could have gone a number of ways but settled for convention drama, albeit delivered in a typically esoteric manner. Flawless performances but the drama only takes us to the cliff edge.