Thomas Vinterberg has never gotten the same level of international success or respect as his Dogme 95 co-founder Lars von Trier, which is a shame. Granted, he’s not a genius on the level of von Trier (who is?) but the filmmaker has a knack for mounting haunting human tragedies laced with a morbid wit that are tough to beat. His latest movie, ‘The Commune’, is pretty soft and gentle by Vinterberg standards. That means it’s still harsh and devastating compared to most movies, only this time with a slightly less cynical view of humanity (emphasis on “slightly”).
The film takes place in 1970s Denmark, and reunites the director with his ‘Celebration’ co-stars Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen. They play a married couple who inherit a mansion they can’t afford, and decide to embrace the brand of communal living that was all the rage at the time, inviting friends and strangers to fill up the empty rooms not inhabited by themselves or their daughters. At first, the new social structure provides a delightful escape, but soon those new freedoms lead to uncomfortable changes. Erik (Thomsen) is weary of his university teaching job, spending time with so many young students whose lives prove so much more promising than his own, so he beds one of them. Anna (Dyrholm) is open to it at first, even inviting the young girl to come live with them. that doesn’t quite work out for obvious reasons.
‘The Commune’ is driven more by character than plot and Vinterberg clearly adores the cast he’s assembled. He lets them disappear into this strange little microcosm. It’s all joyous fun for a while, with jokes and banter playfully batted about among a supremely talented cast dressed in delightfully tacky ’70s fashion. Then things inevitably go dark and the ensemble fades away to focus on the central couple. Trine Dyrholm is absolutely remarkable in her fraught role, delivering an emotional meltdown that’s absolutely devastating (not to mention an uncomfortably honest dinner table conversation that’s painful to watch). Thomsen easily matches her, delivering a bit of a selfish prick who wants to be better but just can’t control his impulses.
Shot through a beige ’70s haze with lively cameras dancing around the performers, Vinterberg’s latest is a joy when it’s cracking. Unfortunately, he drifts ever so slightly in the last act, slipping out of joyous naturalism into melodrama to force a conclusion. It’s a shame to see that happen to a movie that feels so wonderfully free until that point, even if it makes for a strong damnation of communal living and the impossibility of truly changing who we are. Still, this movie only exists because Thomas Vinterberg’s brain exists and carries imaginative insights into the human condition. It’s well worth the trip.