A large, chaotically chattering cast, polarities of farcical humor and teariest melodrama, even a rocking-around-the-Christmas-tree singalong: All the elements of a mass heart-sweller are superficially present in erstwhile Dogma 95 rebel Thomas Vinterberg’s return to Danish cinema. Yet “The Commune” finally winds up feeling as communal as “The Celebration” did celebratory, and this time the irony is perhaps not entirely by design. Picking up a domestically fractious ensemble format (plus actors Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm) from Vinterberg’s 1998 breakout hit, this 1970s-set study of a mixed-family household experiment gone dramatically awry aims for a bittersweet release of feeling that lands, at its most misjudged points, closer to emotional sadism. Human credibility is the separating factor here: Thanks to the skilled machinations of Vinterberg and his deft players, viewers may feel the pain of these characters rather more deeply than they believe it.
For Vinterberg, this uneven but nonetheless absorbing pic at least marks a return to characteristically bristly territory following his handsomely impersonal handling of last year’s English-lingo adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Reuniting with Tobias Lindholm, his co-scribe on “Submarino” and the Oscar-nominated “The Hunt,” Vinterberg has opted for source material in which he’s doubly invested: his own stage play “Kollektivet,” which itself drew from his firsthand experience of being raised in a middle-class commune through the late 1970s and 1980s.
It’s a subject and milieu that has already proven fruitful for one of Vinterberg’s contemporaries: “The Commune” will inevitably face critical comparisons to Swedish auteur Lukas Moodysson’s “Together” (2000), though the films are hardly alike in approach. Where Moodysson’s loose-limbed pic appropriated the unruly, jangly energy of the household under scrutiny, Vinterberg’s organizes its residents’ tangled issues into icier lines of conflict, with most of them playing second fiddle to a central love triangle.
“You lose each other in a big house,” seemingly uptight architecture professor Erik (Thomsen) complains to his wife Anna (Dyrholm) as they wonder what to do with the vast childhood manse he has recently inherited from his late parents. You hardly need Cassandra-like powers of narrative divination to tell the line will prove inadvertently prescient to its speaker: “The Commune” unfolds somewhat like a haunted-house horror film in which the latent specters are merely the characters’ own weakest moral impulses. Anna, a successful TV news anchor whose love for her husband hasn’t precluded a sense of restlessness in her marriage, has her heart set on moving into the palatial pad, and proposes a solution: Why not enlist some of their closest friends (plus a stray hanger-on or two) to help fill it? Communal living, after all, wasn’t an entirely outrageous concept in this mellower hangover period from the free-love era: As presented here, it’s a model of living less bohemian than it is collectively homely, complete with chore rosters, “family” councils and nightly gathering at the dinner table.
After some dithering, Erik agrees, as does their daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen), a teenager who exhibits not a rustle of adolescent resistance to her parents’ increasingly testing behavior. Taking an alpha position among their new chosen housemates — who are otherwise sketched with scant detail — is Ole (Lars Ranthe), a stubborn leftist with a habit of burning any possessions of others that he views as clutter. The chief instigator of tension in this initially contented unit comes from outside the house, as Erik falls head over heels for 24-year-old student Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann) and requests what might best be termed, in its intended clinical civility, a conscious uncoupling. Blindsided but keen to be amenable, Anna finds herself suggesting that Emma at least temporarily move in with them.
All that should be revealed of the ensuing drama, which glides skyward in pitch like a soprano practicing scales, is that the arrangement goes about as well as can be expected — which is to say, quite catastrophically. It’s hard not to feel, however, that the pic’s subsequent human observation, whether at its most cutely funny or cruelly acute, is built on somewhat false pretenses: Why would three intelligent adults, even ones enamored of the outward virtues of fashionably liberal living, agree to such a plainly untenable compromise? “The Commune” doesn’t convincingly clear this hurdle, which makes even its most potent, cathartic articulations of the ways in which family members hurt and heal each other ring a little hollow. Those who found “The Hunt” similarly accomplished but unpersuasive in its symbolic unpacking of humanity at its least humane may feel likewise out of the loop here, despite some gutsy emoting on the part of the actors — chief among them the excellent Dyrholm, who doesn’t shy away from the ugliest personal side effects of Anna’s fundamentally sympathetic position.
Secondary subplots are haphazardly woven into this already heated scenario, rarely to essential effect. One in particular, involving the health problems of two housemates’ young son, is sporadically visited merely for the purpose of unearned emotional button-pushing — most gauchely to the tune of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
Not all the film’s period detailing is quite so on the nose, as Niels Sejer’s cozily worn production design and Ellen Lens’ wheaty, frumpy costumes conjure the guarded looseness of their era without quite succumbing to theme-party kitsch. At certain points, in fact, objects and garments do less to specifically evoke the decade than the faded, browned oranges and duck-egg blues of Jesper Toffner’s warmly tinted lensing, evoking as it does the photo-paper finish of family albums left to discolor for years in the attic. (Other aspects of “The Commune” are expressly crafted to recall “The Celebration,” but Vinterberg has certainly left the austere aesthetic principles of Dogma far behind.)
It’s tempting to ask what Vinterberg’s story would gain or lose from shedding its light period trappings, situating its premise to more disorienting effect in the present tense. “Love is on decline in the world,” a character says toward the end, perhaps anticipating a faster, harder 21st century in which this ungainly household would be less able to function. What he doesn’t seem to notice is that the love in “The Commune” is already tainted at best.