Thomas Vinterberg's The Commune is partly autobiographical: The Danish director of The Celebration and The Hunt lived in a commune between the ages of 7 and 19, at a time when collective living had become popular in Scandinavia. (The phenomenon also inspired Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's 2000 masterpiece, Together.) Maybe that explains the warm light of nostalgia that suffuses the film. Even so, how does something that comes from such a sincere place feel so underdeveloped and halfhearted?
The simple setup could be the premise of a TV sitcom. After his father dies, architecture professor Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and his newscaster wife, Anna (Trine Dyrholm), decide to turn the sprawling house they've suddenly inherited into an experiment in communal living. Anna has the initial idea: She's not just a left-wing idealist but also someone frustrated with her life. “I need to hear someone else speak,” she tells Erik. “Otherwise, I'll go mad.” They invite a friend, who in turn invites another, and before we know it, a small family of oddballs is living under the same roof. They eat together, they argue and they throw parties. They get drunk and jump naked off piers. It's a chaotic idyll.
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All of this comes as a source of both wonder and befuddlement to Erik and Anna's teenage daughter, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen). At least, I think we're meant to see wonder and befuddlement. Vinterberg regularly cuts to Freja's silent, somewhat expressionless face, almost as if doing so will somehow place the film in her perspective and turn it into a coming-of-age tale. But there's little sense that what we're witnessing is through the eyes of a child. Instead, Vinterberg seems to be trying to find a way to focus his diffuse story.
The Commune should play to Vinterberg's strengths. The director has a talent for shooting groups — for organizing the turmoil and shifting allegiances and emotional undercurrents of gatherings of people — and some early scenes do sing. A vibrant montage, depicting the ways that prospective members are interviewed and accepted, shows promise. But the glue that should turn these individual moments into something resembling a unified cinematic experience just isn't there. The Commune feels like fragments of a far more interesting film, haphazardly stitched together.
Vinterberg and his co-writer, Tobias Lindholm (an exceptional director himself, having made the ludicrously tense hostage drama A Hijacking), don't let us spend enough time with these individuals. We get group scenes and more montages, but nobody ever seems to transcend the collective. Maybe that's the point. But here, that leads to tedium, not enlightenment — and the sharply emotional turns the film takes near the end suggest that Vinterberg wants us invested in these people's lives.
Alas, The Commune at some point pretty much stops being about a commune and more about plain old adultery; Erik is soon taken with a young, beautiful architecture student (Helene Reingaard Neumann). To its credit, the film seems to acknowledge the generic nature of this dalliance: The fact that the two are sleeping together is introduced so casually that it almost unfolds like a sight gag. And the eventual direction that the affair takes is somewhat surprising. But it's too little, too late. The Commune plays like a collection of ideas, scenes and characters, looking for a way to connect.