Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Commune - Kollektivet (2016)

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s mines his own childhood experience of growing up in a commune during the 1970s and '80s to come up with this drama, which was based on his own stage play, Kollektivet.

The Commune is set in 1970s Copenhagen; married couple Anna, a local television newsreader, and Erik, a lecturer of architecture, and their shy but sharp 14-year-old daughter, Freja move into Erik's childhood large home which he has inherited from his late father. Finding the house too grand and spacious for them alone, Anna hits upon the idea of inviting various friends and professional acquaintances to move in with them. Erik is a little sceptical at first, especially at the thought of living with his left wing drinking buddy Ole, but he is soon won round by his wife's insistence that communal living will save them from the boredom they secretly believe lies in wait for them as they fully enter their middle age. From Ole comes the bearded Steffan, his earnest wife Ditte, and their son who has a heart condition. Then there's the cheery, ditzy free-loving Mona and completing the group is Allon, a penniless Assyrian who the rest of the house sometimes struggle to understand and who possesses a very thin skin. 

All seems very good and groovy at first, with an inaugural wobbly skinny dip and much laughter and harmless bickering and banter around the dinner table at house meetings, but this atmosphere of collective living and of stimulating group discussion and creativity, soon develops a dangerous flaw when a further housemate enters the equation; Emma, a student of Erik's whom he has started an affair with. The notion of caring and sharing reaches an obvious limit that Anna doesn't wish to admit to or confront; can she maintain ownership of her husband in a free-for-all environment? Marginalised and depressed, Anna searches for the answer in a bottle, setting off on a particularly self destructive path.

The Commune has an awful lot to navigate in its 110 minute running time and it's fair to say it doesn't hit all its beats as well as it perhaps would have liked. The first half of the film, with the initial set-up of the living arrangements, is light and fun with an opportunity for some '70s nostalgia with its fashions and soundtrack, and some sweet-natured humour at the left-wing, middle-class intelligentsia, but it covers ground so quickly that it does sometimes feel like you're actually watching a really good Danish TV series on fast forward, thereby missing a lot of detail, development and background. The second half of the film though sees it take a darker turn and we can relax a little because this means we are in the capable hands of Trine Dyrholm as Anna. 

Dyrholm is an incredible actress, being the star of the middle-class family in meltdown drama Arvingerne (or The Legacy, to give it it's English title) certainly proved that to me, and the intriguing mix of steely resolve and brittle vulnerability she often displays there is even more on display in The Commune, to great effect. It's fair to say she blows everyone else out of the water here (including Ulrich Thomsen as her husband Erik) but it is equally fair to say that this may be because everyone else has so little to work with. It's really frustrating that a film called The Commune could centre so specifically on just one person (or a trio at least - though even Erik seems barely sketched at times with and intriguing quickfire temper and immature streak that is frustratingly never truly fully explored) and give us virtually nothing about the other housemates beyond their basic personality traits. It's even more of a shame because it is clear the actors here are really good and deserved some good material to play with.  Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy this film, I really enjoyed this film, but I can't forgive them for giving the gorgeous and bright screen presence that is Julie Agnete Vang (of Borgen fame, playing Mona here) nothing to do.

Perhaps because of these flaws, The Commune has been compared with Lukas Moodysson's commune-set film Tillsammans (Together) from 2000 and found lacking. I can't really comment because I haven't seen Moodysson's film (yet, I hasten to add!) but I think it's largely unfair to dismiss this as it remains an enjoyable and effective emotional film with a strong central performance from Dyrholm and a good period setting.

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