Living with several people can be tricky. And when it comes to relationships, this aspect is often neglected as a way to explore richer dynamics, whether it be between two or more people. The living situation is what makes Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune remotely intriguing. But while it sets up a lot of potential situations to explore, the film isn’t always sure whether it’s about the commune itself, or how it particularly impacts the relationships between the main characters.
Set in the 1970s, Anna (Trine Dyrlhom) and Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) have moved back into Erik’s childhood home after the passing of his parents. Unable to afford the house on their own and unwilling to sell it, they decide to turn it into a Danish commune and interview several tenants before having them move in. The first forty minutes or so attempt to build togetherness and give us moments of bonding between the group. It’s a bit clunky and lackluster though. The narrative doesn’t quite engage with everyone in a way that endears them to the audience.
However, the story becomes interesting just after Erik begins having an affair with one of his college students, Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann). Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), the couple’s daughter, finds out what’s happening and it’s then that Erik tells Anna the truth. Internalizing this information and not wanting to lose Erik, Anna suggests that Emma live with them in the commune. Caught in a whirlwind of emotional turmoil and newfound instability, Anna’s life begins spiraling in ways she’d never thought possible.
Tonally, The Commune is a bit all over the place. Does it wish to be serious? Is it taking a stance about communes? It’s definitely more on the serious side, but the film often feels like it’s being pulled in several directions. The film is dynamic in that it partially explores the effects of an extramarital affair on Anna. At the same time, there are several other characters who are left behind and serve only as crisis managers when the need arises. An example is Freja who, caught between her mother and father’s situation, finds herself in the arms of an older teenage boy and doesn’t voice any concerns or thoughts until the final minutes of the film.
Erik is a loose cannon and, instead of properly trying to deal with the situation, throws tantrums like a child, calls the issues with Anna “women problems” and practically removes himself from the equation. This creates a painfully awkward dynamic between Emma and Anna that has moments of sheer honesty between them, but the film doesn’t allow for further interaction. Anna spirals and, although she lives in a house always full of people, suffers in silence, sleeping down the hall from her estranged husband and his new girlfriend, and alone in the world.
Eventually, the cracks in her exterior begin to grow and it’s painful, but engaging to watch her struggle through her predicament. She goes through many emotional stages: from shock, to acceptance, to anger, and it always feels true to the character. In many ways, Anna has to suffer in ways that her husband does not, paying for the price of his mistake and forced to deal with the aftermath without being afforded any leverage or closure. In this sense, the film is cruel in setting her up to fall while Erik is practically left without consequences for his actions and little to no guilt. Trine Dyrlhom is the true standout of The Commune and gives a satisfying performance as a woman who finds herself lost and confused at this new situation in her life.
Unfortunately, none of the other relationships prevalent in the film evolve beyond surface level. There are moments of emotional beauty, of finding a way back after losing everything, but the film never remains focused long enough to provide true depth and the finale in particular leaves much to be desired. Anna is given attention and time to grow, but she is the one who suffers for actions she didn’t take and it speaks to the double standard treatment between her and her husband. The Commune feels incomplete because it isn’t quite sure how to integrate the commune as a full-fledged player within the story and, paired with the affair plot, Anna is ultimately caught in the middle of the film’s indecisiveness.