A deceptively upbeat portrait of the tail end of the free-loving 1970s, The Commune positions itself as a winning dramedy about group living before turning its gaze toward the durability of base masculine instincts. This isn’t unique territory for Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who in films as stylistically distinct as The Celebration and The Hunt has expertly exposed the stealthy deceptions and evils of tight-knit social groups. The Commune isn’t as bleak as either of those films, but despite its moments of fizzy humor and pop montage, it can feel just as cynical. Whether the film arrives at its ultimately blinkered worldview with intention and purpose is an open question.
The rigidity of patriarchy looms quietly over The Commune, as stuffy architecture professor Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) reluctantly opts to keep his dead father’s luxe Copenhagen home despite its high overhead and his small family. Erik’s newscaster wife, Anna (Trine Dyrholm), presses him to open the house to others, a proposal that hints at a sense of atrophy in their marriage. Daughter Frejka (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) embraces the experiment, and they take in a band of loners and ne’er-do-wells, including the authoritarian but rakish leftist Ole (Lars Ranthe), broke and jobless Allon (Fares Fares), and another small family with a seven-year-old child, Vilads (Sebastian Grønnegaard Milbrat). The boy has a heart condition, and in a scene that comes to define the film’s aspirations toward manipulative bathos, introduces himself by announcing that he’ll be dead in two years.
Despite its period setting and a few allusions to the Vietnam War, The Commune‘s politics aren’t explicit. Vinterberg was raised in a similarly bohemian attempt at group living, and the film, co-written with Tobias Lindholm, is adapted from his semi-autobiographical play Kollektivet. What the film gradually reveals, even in ostensibly light-hearted sequences depicting house meetings and nightly dinners, is the durability of man-centric heteronormativity. Half of the major characters in the film are women, and those who are afforded character shading are defined by their relationships with men. Despite democratic votes about chores and utility bills, Erik and Ole take the lead on all decrees, repeatedly reducing the immigrant Allon to tears and diminishing others to little more than velvet- and polyester-clad window dressing. In the early going, Vinterberg delicately plants a nagging sense that this utopian experiment is rigged, but when Erik’s dalliance with free living draws his eye to one of his students, Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), most of what’s compelling about the film fades into the background.
Erik’s affair is initially played as an intimate extension of his attempts to be more open to the world. He and Anna approach the situation with delicacy and empathy, exemplars of social laissez-faire who quickly prove to be fooling themselves. Throughout, cinematographer Jesper Tøffner uses the house’s large, open rooms to capture the sense of possibility in this social arrangement—that, just maybe, these individuals can make an open relationship work. And yet, the film’s handheld camera is always slightly unstable. Vinterberg never openly suggests that the behavior of his characters can’t possibly live up to their ideals, but this sensibility gradually bleeds into the proceedings and sends the film into tricky tonal territory.
As the plot of The Commune becomes dominated by the dissolution of Erik and Anna’s marriage, the film’s very premise begins to feel irrelevant. A few inhabitants of the commune meet with love or mawkish tragedy (one particularly egregious development is set to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), though most of them exist merely to serve as powerless spectators of Erik’s midlife crisis. Anna becomes the film’s lone object of sympathy, but even her melodramatic spiral into depression, however movingly portrayed by Dyrholm, reaffirms its conservative values. The Commune plays and feels like a crowd-pleaser, yet the film’s sentimentality is suspect, laced with an intriguing but vague strain of bitterness.