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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

CIFF41 Review: The Commune

The Commune is one of the great arguments against the old adage to write what you know; did the world really demand another story about a quote-unquote 'brilliant' academic fucking a gorgeous student to escape his aging, unappreciative wife? There is more to the movie than that, of course, and what surrounds the core story is actually interesting and well-cast. But every time the movie threatens to become about something bigger than Erik's marital woes, the gravitational pull of the film's worst plot thread swallows everything whole.

The Commune follows Erik and Anna, a long-married couple who inherit a sizable house in 1970-something Denmark. Erik wants to sell, knowing they can't afford the place, but Anna has a different idea: Why not start a commune, inviting a number of friends and colleagues to live in the house together? She loves her husband and daughter, but figures that the group would keep things fresh and entertaining. So, they invite a wide variety of people - radical leftist academic Ole, flower child Mona, immigrant Allon, and more. At first, the more conservative Erik - who gets so furious when people defy him that he literally faints with rage - rankles at the idea, but eventually he comes to enjoy living with friends and colleagues.

This story has very little to do with the other major story running through the film. In it, Erick, a snide, controlling architecture professor, begins sleeping with Emma, a student in his class who looks eerily like a younger version of his wife. After being caught in bed with her by his daugther, he comes clean to his wife, then demands that the commune allow Emma to move in with him, threatening to evict anyone who doesn't let it happen. As he moves one room over, his wife begins to go crazy, forced to listen to him make love to Emma night after night and ignore her completely, despite assurances that he won't leave her, and she begins to go mad for missing him.

It is, to put it simply, The Fucking Worst, particularly since much of this is framed as punishment for Anna saying she was bored with Erik's rote, condescending architecture talk.

Here's the thing: Thomas Vinterberg is a hugely talented writer-director. The Celebration is excellent, one of the best films of the Dogme 95 movement he helped pioneer. Far From The Madding Crowd is a strong literary adaptation, and The Hunt is a well-made thriller that felt slightly muddled but is nevertheless pretty gripping. His ideas about gender and sex have always been on the controversial side, but he's had a pretty solid grasp of what he was saying.

Which makes it surprising how sloppy and half-baked The Commune feels. There are definitely moments in the house that feel like top notch political farce, as Erik is happy to play by the democratic rules of the commune... so long as they are voting his way. As soon as the rules are inconvenient to him, however, he breaks them and turns on all his friends. But this fails to intersect thematically with his affair and Anna's descent into madness, which feels like brutal socially conservative punishment being enacted on a woman who dared question her husband. And then there are the little stories, which feel even more disconnected, like the 6-year-old boy who uses his heart condition and impending death to flirt with girls, a subplot that has the most baffling conclusion I could imagine. None of these stories seem to exist in the same world as one another, and the lack of thematic overlap between them makes The Commune feel scattershot and ill-conceived.

Which is too bad, because The Commune features some pretty gorgeous performances. I find Erik a truly heinous human being, but Ulrich Thomsen's performance is pretty phenomenal, aptly capturing the privilege and entitlement of the character while still giving him a semblance of charm. And Trine Dyrholm is phenomenal at capturing Anna's descent into alcoholism, allowing Anna's deep emotional wounds to emerge slowly and powerfully over the back half of the film. Even the bit players are excellently cast, particularly Lars Ranthe's comedic take on Ole, the liberal hedonist responsible for many of the film's funniest moments.

If The Commune were equal even to the sum of its parts, I think it would be a reasonably solid movie. But the excellent performances and strong editing have a hard time overcoming the film's script, which on a fundamental level feels scattered and ugly. Vinterberg has made a career out of finding the nuance in difficult, even traumatizing situations, and you can definitely see where he attempted to do so here. But The Commune doesn't come together. Its point, beyond, "Don't tell your husband you want some adventure," and because of that it is lost in a morass of disconnected plot threads and underdeveloped characters.

The Commune is out now in limited release, playing in film festivals across the country. It recently played at the 41st Cleveland International Film Festival. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg and written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, The Commune stars Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm.
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