I remember the first time I saw Thomas Vinterberg’s 1997 drama Festen (The Celebration). Surely, here was Scandinavia’s next great filmmaker: a frosty Dane brave enough to confront uncomfortable truths, skewer family values, and examine patriarchal power and privilege, all within the context of a single film.
Co-founder with Lars von Trier of the Dogme 95 movement, Vinterberg seemed destined for great things. Since then, however, the results have been decidedly mixed: Vinterberg almost immediately abandoned his adherence to Dogme’s (mock?) Manifesto with his next few films before trying his hand at English-language filmmaking.
Then came a rebound: 2012’s Jagten (The Hunt) travelled similar territory as The Celebration, and was one of the highlights of the year (as well as one of its five Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominees). Consequently, my hopes were high for the director’s latest effort, Kollektivet (The Commune), opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 26.
First, the good news: The Commune is set in early 1970s Denmark and filmed in Danish, and Vinterberg is always at his best working on his native turf and in his native language. Now, the not quite so good: while by no means a failure, it just isn’t one of his best efforts.
Erik (Lincoln Chafee lookalike Ulrich Thomsen) is a professor of architecture who’s recently inherited the family pile. Wife Anna (In a Better World’s Trine Dyrholm), a popular newscaster, is excited about moving into the spacious house, but Erik has concerns about maintenance expenses.
The solution: open up the living space to their friends and, in best countercultural style, run things collectively. Amongst the couple’s new roommates are scruffy Ole (Lars Ranthe), flighty Mona (Julie Agnete Vang), academics Ditte (Anne Gry Henningsen), and Steffen (Magnus Millang), penniless crybaby Allon (Fares Fares), and 6-year-old heart patient Vilads (Sebastian Milbrat).
I expected The Commune to examine its characters’ peculiarities and peccadilloes in distressing detail, but that’s not what happens. Instead, Vinterberg focuses on Erik’s affair with Emma (Helene Neumann), a student and Le Corbusier enthusiast half his age whose admission as a house member is put up to a vote by the collective – including Anna and teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen).
Despite this promising set-up, Vinterberg again holds his fire. There’s a great scene as the group debate Emma’s pending membership, but Anna’s grudging acquiescence to her presence deflates the potential for onscreen fireworks. And indeed, most of the film’s characters are so resolutely reasonable and flexible that hopes for dramatic highlights are consistently deflated.
Whereas The Celebration stripped away the conventions of polite middle-class society via a series of revelations about its deeply flawed characters, The Commune suggests we could all just get along if the spirit is willing. While that might sound good in the context of a self-help book, it doesn’t make for scintillating cinema and instead of being a hippie version of Big Brother set in Freetown Cristiana, The Commune ends up, disappointingly, feeling more like Noah Baumbach than Ingmar Bergman.