'The Commune' ('Kollektivet'): Berlin Review

The Commune Thomas Vinterberg
Christian Geisnaes
A sweet but lightweight ensemble comedy.

Former Oscar nominee Thomas Vinterberg draws on his own unconventional childhood for this Berlin competition contender about a dysfunctional Danish commune.

Free love comes at a high price in Thomas Vinterberg's latest comic drama, a slight but warm-hearted period piece partly inspired by the Danish writer-director's own childhood growing up in a hippie commune in 1970s Copenhagen. Screening in Berlin this week following a domestic launch last month, The Commune reunites Vinterberg with Tobias Lindholm, co-writer of his Oscar-shortlisted drama The Hunt, plus key castmembers from his award-winning 1998 breakthrough film The Celebration.

In both its dramatic context and its jaded slant on the sexually liberated 1970s, The Commune nods to some obvious cinematic ancestors, notably Lukas Moodysson's Together and Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. This a sweeter and gentler film than either, unusually upbeat for Vinterberg and for Danish film in general, which typically sits on a spectrum somewhere between suicidal and apocalyptic. But these very accessible, crowd-pleasing elements could well translate into commercial appeal internationally. Distribution deals are already in place across much of Europe, with a French release due in late February, followed by Germany and Britain in April.

The setting is 1975, the location a well-heeled coastal suburb north of Copenhagen. A little bored with her staid midlife routine, TV newsreader Anna (Trine Dyrholm) persuades her stuffy college lecturer husband Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) to turn his newly inherited family home into a commune. Together with their 14-year-old daughter, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen), they fill the house with bohemian friends and eccentric strangers. Soon this rambling suburban mansion is abuzz with rowdy dinner parties, domestic power struggles and — this being Scandinavia — full-frontal nudity.

Predictably, sunny utopian idealism takes a stormy turn when infidelity and sexual jealousy cloud the picture. Emboldened by the permissive mood of commune life, Erik begins an affair with 24-year-old student Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), later moving her into the shared house. Initially stoical and accepting, Anna soon begins to crack up under this cruel new domestic arrangement, setting friends and co-workers on edge. With the communal dream crumbling, something has to give.

The Commune effortlessly entertains at a TV sitcom level, with its pithy dialogue, its chorus of thinly drawn caricatures and its cozy sense of mockery towards the failed social experiments of past generations. But as serious cinema, it feels limited for the same reasons. Political context is oddly absent, with scarcely a nod to the heady mix of feminism, anarchism and Vietnam-era anti-war leftism that fueled the commune movement. Vinterberg and Lindholm also remain strangely squeamish about the darker elements of this story, keeping the tone light even as they veer towards tragedy when a fringe character dies, a tear-jerking twist that feels clumsily engineered for dramatic closure.

Vinterberg and cinematographer Jesper Toffner shoot in the now-familiar post-Dogme 95 style, with heavy use of handheld cameras and jittery close-ups, all painted in a bleached-out vintage-postcard palette of coppery earthtones and stonewashed blues. A period-specific soundtrack is peppered with mellow retro sounds, from Elton John to Danish folk-pop minstrels. Overall, The Commune is a sweet but unchallenging exercise in selective nostalgia, a conventional film about an unconventional era.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Zentropa International Sweden, Topkapi Films, Zentropa International Netherlands
Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen, Julie Agnete Vang, Fares Fares
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Screenwriters: Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm
Cinematographer: Jesper Tøffner
Editors: Anne Osterud, Janus Billeskov Jansen
Producers: Sisse Graum Jørgensen, Morten Kaufmann
Music: Fons Merkies
Costumes: Ellen Lens
Sales company: Trust Nordisk

Not rated, 90 minutes