Thomas Vinterberg’s film The Commune (Kollektivet in Danish) grapples with unconventional family dynamics and the hurt that often comes in conjunction with love. Though it explores a fascinating premise with solid acting and cinematography, the film suffers due to its forced plot elements and unexplained character motivations.
The Commune is set in 1970s Copenhagen, a particularly liberated location and time period. Erik’s (Ulrich Thomsen) father passes away and leaves him with a huge house that he doesn’t think he can sustain or fill with just his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm), a TV news anchor, and their teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen). In a moment of foreshadowing, he says, “People lose each other in large houses.” Anna comes up with the idea to invite their friends to live with them and create a commune. The cast of characters who will make up the commune is quickly established, but the exciting new living conditions soon become complicated when Erik, who is a university professor, embarks on an extramarital affair with Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), one of his students.
Erik and Anna’s reasoning for setting up the commune appears to be both financial and social; they hope to enrich and shake up their lives by surrounding themselves with friends and alleviate their shared mundane existence. However, not only are these points not emphasized or elucidated upon enough, but the film does not properly represent the family's environment before establishing the commune, thus making their decision come across as sudden and strange.
Anna’s easy acceptance of Erik’s newfound love for Emma is fascinating to watch, as it diverges from the expected conflict that results when one partner has been unfaithful. The subsequent deconstruction of Anna and Erik’s relationship takes place rapidly, as we go from one encounter between the spouses to another where more time has passed than is immediately obvious; an affair transitions to a separation in only a few scenes. This transition is uncomfortably jolting to the viewer, but also mirrors Anna’s sudden realization that she has gone from being a wife to simply someone who is the mother of Erik’s child much faster than she ever would have imagined. This turn of events is surprising because Anna’s initial reaction was so understanding of the situation; her extreme unraveling and abrupt changes in attitudes and behaviors prove otherwise.
Trine Dyrholm as Anna is especially mesmerizing and her performance grounds the film, which is particularly notable as the movie has several thin and underdeveloped characters. I particularly empathized with the tumultuous emotions she was feeling during her onscreen breakdown. Vinterberg’s cinematography here feels fresh and exciting. For example, his use of a close-up of Anna’s eyes, the water welling up steadily, visually builds the suspense before her imminent breakdown. It clearly establishes this as the moment when she cannot repress her sadness for any longer. Vinterberg also achieves this effect through his constant use of shallow focus, which imitates Anna’s blurred vision from her tears, as well as her metaphorical change of focus in her relationship with Erik.
Despite these moving scenes, The Commune has a clunky narrative structure that bogs it down. Sometimes the film is tonally inconsistent, as plot elements vacillate too starkly between melodrama and light comedy. The other commune members exist purely for comic relief; none of them show much development or are distinctly important to the plot.
Another structural issue is the film's imbalanced focus on Erik and Emma's relationship. Instead of naturally exploring the advantages and conflicts of commune life, the extramarital relationship between Erik and Emma overshadows any other plot points. The parallel sub-plot between Freja and her crush feels inconsequential and perhaps only included out of obligation. Similarly, the heart problems of Vilad (Sebastian Grønnegaard Milbrat), the young son of two of the commune members, simply acts as a way to shake up the plot in moments that don’t have enough excitement.
The bittersweet resolution doesn’t seem apt for a story that has generally built itself around the unconventional and the alternative family unit. It refuses to answer looming questions, as we don’t know how Anna will fare and whether Erik and Emma’s relationship will work, but whether we are really invested in those outcomes is another question.