By Karen Gordon
Keeping to a theme, his latest – the disappointing The Commune - is another exploration of a small group of people dealing with the fallout of viral emotional poison.
Set in the early 70’s, The Commune centers on architect and professor Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and TV anchor Anna (Trine Dyrholm), an attractive middle-aged couple with a 14-year-old daughter, Freya.
When Erik inherits the large home where he grew up, he deems it too big and wants to sell. But the more relaxed and playful Anna rather easily persuades Erik to start a commune. They move in and start the interviews.
First in is Ole (Lars Ranthe) an unemployed, slightly eccentric friend of Anna’s. Then a couple and their seven-year old son. The boy has some kind of congenital defect and tells everyone he’s not likely to live to be 9, which seems to charm more than worry everyone.
They add more people to the house with only minor friction.
Each night, everyone gathers at the long dining room table for chatty dinners as one big happy family.
But nothing lasts forever. And perhaps surprisingly, the blow comes from outside – in the form of a student named Emma (played by Vinterberg’s wife Helene Reingaard Neumann).
In fact, Erik’s motivations seem written on air. The whys of the affair are a mystery. If there were cracks in the relationship between Anna and Erik, it’s as much a surprise to us as it is to Anna. Erik eventually confesses, but seems oblivious to Anna’s pain, partly, because she’s so good at internalizing and partly because, well, he’s oblivious.
As the movie goes on Vinterberg shoots her in increasingly unflattering ways. Anna is an attractive woman in her early forties, but Vinterberg goes in for the kill. She comes to dinner with wet hair, no make up as the camera shows off her lined face. That’s in contrast to young Emma, sitting next to Erik, at the other end of the long dining room table, always done up, full make up, hair perfect.
There’s no horrible rivalry. The two women not only look alike, but they are both quiet and watchful, and treat each other with kindness. Anna doesn’t go for vengenace, instead she goes about the business of quietly imploding.
Vinterberg grew up in a communal living situation where his parents divorced, but it’s unclear what he’s exploring here. The initial scenes of the group of people coalescing into a family are played like a light romp. But when the situation gets more complicated in the second half of the film the movie flattens.
Vinterberg sets up a scenario that begs for subtle depth and then walks away. And so do the characters.
As Anna’s pain becomes too much for her to control, the other residents who established their cameraderie in the first half of the film, no longer seem to be able to muster up much emotion one way or the other. It’s as if all of the adults at the table, save for Anna and Emma, have been replaced by replicants.
Vinterberg says after making a few movies with male leads, (The Hunt, Submarino) he wanted to explore a woman’s story. But what he seems to be saying here is an old cliche - that after forty a woman loses her value, even to herself.
Trine Dyrholm does a gorgeous job of getting into the skin of Anna, turning in a contained and quiet performance of a woman shocked by the depth of her emotional response.
But in a narrative where even the filmmaker has walked away, that’s not enough to bring The Commune its meaning.
The Commune. Directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg. Starring Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Dyrholm and Helene Reingaard Neumann. Now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Karen Gordon is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She’s currently heard Friday mornings as the movie reviewer for CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. She’s been covering movies, music and aspects of popular culture for more than 20 years on radio, television and in print. She also works as a creative producer, series story editor and writer for documentary and lifestyle television. She's also the co-writer of two award-winning cookbooks, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita and Made in Italy. Karen still gets a thrill when the lights go down and the movie begins.