In what universe does Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Commune” make sense? The thinly drawn characters in this stagey, maudlin, histrionic dreck seem driven by pages that must’ve vanished from the script. They leap from broad character types to wild hippies in no time flat, act completely out of line and ultimately enable the film’s dirtbag protagonist to carry on an affair. Chalk it up to the lifestyles of those crazy Danes, I guess.
A nuclear family of a middle-aged couple, Erik and Anna, and their teenage daughter Freja, inherits a massive home too large for them to live in and maintain on their own, so they invite some old friends as roommates but agree to a communal arrangement. In preliminary interviews they reveal themselves as a square, a drifter, a burnout, a hippie and a strict mother with a dying toddler son, but before long they’re all laughing drunkenly and jumping into the ocean naked. Good times.
As the family moves into the house, Freja adjusts the TV and sees her parents arguing inside the box’s reflection. It’s a shot that suggests that their lives are about to unfold inside these tight confines, reflected in overly dramatic terms like a reality show for all the world to see. But instead of examining how such a lifestyle might ruin this girl’s psychology in her formative years, Freja barely speaks a word, and Vinterberg shifts focus to an affair brewing between her father and one of his young students, Emma. Erik reveals to his wife that he and Emma are in love and wishes for Emma to move into their commune. Anna meanwhile slowly loses her mind as she bites her tongue and listens to the couple having sex in the floor above her new bedroom.
It’s grossly upsetting to see the commune use a democratic value system to justify this extra-marital affair, with Erik erupting in childish tantrums over the ownership of the home and the right to do as he pleases. But it’s not the subject matter so much as it’s all presented as blackly comedic. Vinterberg’s style is grand, broad and stagey, with a few oddly placed ‘70s pop songs alternating with a more somber piano score. The film hunts for laughs with one scene where a housemate starts a bonfire while parading around in an open bathrobe. In another, the house’s six-year-old is also their resident nihilist. He goes around declaring that he’ll only live to age 9, so maybe Emma would like to “shag?” Vinterberg constantly tries to cut the tension of the uncomfortable family dynamic with awkward jokes and silly deflections, and the whole film feels sour.
Other plot threads seem grossly underdeveloped, as though entire scenes of exposition have vanished. How did Freja so easily go from a girl having her first uncomfortable sexual encounter to being confidently in control of her sexuality? How did Anna so quickly go from a headstrong newswoman to someone on the brink of insanity? What is the deal exactly with some of these housemates and why do they so easily get along?
“The Commune” draws loosely from Vinterberg’s (“The Hunt”) experience growing up in a communal family in the ‘70s, and the screenplay co-written by him and Tobias Lindholm (“A War,” “The Hunt”) is based on their own play. In the past the directing and writing pair have tapped into relatable and nuanced social dynamics. But “The Commune’s” broad nature keeps it from connecting on any level.
1 ½ stars