Danish writer/director Thomas Vinterberg is best known for his searing dramas and dark comedies such as ‘The Celebration’ or ‘The Hunt’, which force audiences into painfully awkward corners of the human experience and psyche. Now he’s made a romp about a failed 1970s commune. As you might imagine, it’s not all goofy games.
Vinterberg reunites with his ‘Celebration’ co-stars Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen for this film. They play a married couple who inherit a massive mansion that they can’t afford. He’s a professor and she’s a TV newscaster, so obviously it’s a pricy place. Rather than give it up, they land on a particularly ’70s solution: Why not invite a handful of friends and strangers to join them for a spat of communal living? What could possibly go wrong?
At first, not much. The alternative lifestyle suits the couple and their daughters just fine. Everyone pitches in, dinner time is filled with raucous stories, and occasionally there are even mass skinny-dipping celebrations. Unfortunately, Anna (Dyrholm) gets a little too excited about this whole hippie lifestyle thing. Erik (Thomsen) starts to grow jealous of the exciting lives of his students and decides to bed one. He initially tries to play it cool and even invites the girl to come live in the commune. Shocker, things don’t quite go well.
For a while, the infectious fun that Vinterberg and his cast shared making the movie translates well to viewers. This was a personal project for the director who grew up in a commune in the era and clearly holds great nostalgia for that swingin’ time. The jittery cinematography captures all of the delightfully tacky costumes in a beige ’70s haze dripping with nostalgic authenticity. The cast enjoy the silly getups and the freedom of the production. It’s great fun to watch the director build a world and let his actors play in it. The sense of place and time is palpable. The characters feel fully lived-in and the actors bounce off each other joyfully in scenes that freely flow between comedy and drama.
Of course, there’s not nearly enough structure in a rambling commune comedy to suit a feature. Eventually, the party gives way to a plot. The focus shifts back to the family who kicked off all the fun, and the drama surrounding some free love infidelity. Trine Dyrholm shines brightly when that happens, slowly losing her grip on the situation and devolving into an emotional mess that’s absolutely painful to watch. The actress gets some extraordinary moments to play, like a devastating on-camera broadcasting meltdown that’s tough to sit through and a particularly awkward dinner conversation that’s painfully real. Ulrich Thomsen is generally overshadowed by his co-lead, but matches her in his commitment to his role. He plays a selfish dink who means well, but tends to let his impulses run out of control in unhealthy ways. It’s hardly a lovable character, but he gives an empathetic performance that’s all too relatable in its messiness.
While the drama between those leads proves to be powerful within Vinterberg’s playfully constructed world, the filmmaker can’t quite keep all of his balls in the air for the entire running time. Once supporting character subplots start to pay off, the script lurches awkwardly into melodrama to force emotional blowouts, catharsis, and closure. It all becomes a bit much in ways that the filmmaker must have hoped he could ground through naturalistic performances. By the time the final tragic twist arrives, it’s hard not to roll your eyes. Vinterberg goes into tone-twisting overload and loses the finely honed sense of realism that was the film’s greatest strength until that point.
It’s a shame to see the house of cards all fall apart, but at least the first hour or so of the film are so lively, funny and moving that it saves the project from being a total failure. The film may ultimately be one of Vinterberg’s middling efforts, but for a while it felt like ‘The Commune’ could have been one of his best.