Thomas Vinterburg is a great filmmaker, but he must be a real drag at parties. His oeuvre is unrelentingly grim. 2013’s The Hunt centered on a small-town father accused of child molestation. His previous film Submarino was about two traumatized men who reconnect at their mother’s funeral. Then there is his adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which opened with a herd of sheep driving themselves off a cliff to smash on the rocks below. Of course, no one asked Ingmar Bergman to make comedies. Vinterburg, too, has always made life’s miseries worthwhile.
For his latest, he seems to have purposefully stepped out of his comfort zone, and the results are predictably substandard. The Commune begins as a shallowly giddy celebration of ’70s counterculture, complete with skinny-dipping and day-drinking, but it’s not long before the old, cold Vinterburg returns to punish his characters for their fun.
Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and Anna (Trine Dyrholm) are a middle-aged married couple who have just inherited a beautiful old home from Erik’s estranged father. It’s the perfect opportunity to start a communal living arrangement, which Anna has been urging for some time. Erik still isn’t convinced, so Anna persuades him with some afternoon delight on their first day as new homeowners. Within minutes, they are planning their hippie paradise and interviewing the strangers who will become their new family.
Normally, this is where I would run through a list of the film’s eccentric housemates, but here they are almost shockingly ill-defined. There is a scoundrel who has a crush on Anna; a married couple with a seven-year-old child who has a heart condition and talks about it constantly; an attractive redhead; and a gentle giant, Allon, the only one given a modicum of characterization. His thing is that he cries a lot, but his cartoonish hyper-sensitivity is a meaningless quirk and never factors into the plot.
The film is only interested in these folks as set dressing. Immediately after they are introduced Vinterburg finds himself drawn back to Erik and Anna, who are depicted with only a sliver more depth than their near-anonymous housemates. Erik begins an affair with a beautiful student (Helen Reingaard Neumann, Vinterburg’s wife) and, after bringing her back to the house, gets caught by his daughter. He confesses to Anna, who responds by inviting his mistress to move in with them. Who are these people? Why would Anna, a successful television journalist, be so beholden to her slimy, cowardly husband? We can only guess. It’s never even clear why Anna wants to start a commune in the first place. “I need to hear someone else speak,” is all she tells him. “Otherwise I’ll go mad.”
The foundation is there for a deep, compelling story about the limits of sexual freedom, but Vinterburg takes an uncharacteristically timid stance on the characters and their troubles. Perhaps he was too close to the material. The story is reportedly based on the director’s own upbringing, with Erik and Anna as stand-ins for his real-life parents. That could explain the uneven tone, as if he is trying to wrestle his complicated past into a comprehensible present.
It doesn’t work. With its reliance on cliché and a superficial understanding of its characters, The Commune fails to hit a surprising note. It is both utterly predictable and inexplicably plotted, a dubious accomplishment that is exemplified in the depiction of the commune’s lone child, the aforementioned heart patient. This poor child has nothing to do with the story, but he gets used to raise the stakes in the cheapest way possible. His character arc could even inspire an amendment to the famous rule about Chekhov’s gun: If a kid with a heart condition is introduced in the first act, well, you know the rest. Sorry for the spoiler, but if it saves you the troubling of seeing The Commune, you owe me one.
The Commune opens Friday at E Street Cinema.