Film review – Kollektivet / The Commune (Thomas Vinterberg, 2016)

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg returns with his latest film Kollektivet, known as ‘The Commune’ in English-speaking countries. Set in 1970s Copenhagen, it revolves around architecture professor Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm), who have inherited Erik’s gigantic childhood family home. The building has prohibitively high living costs and the pair fear it would feel empty, so Anna suggests inviting some friends and acquaintances to share the space (and costs) with them. And so they end up with a total of ten people in the house, turning it into the titular commune.

Inevitably, the unusual way of living takes its toll on all those involved, be it their shy daughter Freja (Martha Hansen) sneaking out to see her new boyfriend, emotionally unstable Allon (Fares Fares), or Ditte (Anne Gry Henningsen) and Steffen (Magnus Millang) who have a son with an increasingly threatening heart condition. Every time these characters hit a low, the other people are there to ensure spirits don’t stay too low for too long.

Where the story avoids feeling slightly convenient, it is instead overly contrived. The setup of the commune concept is abrupt and simply has to be accepted by the viewers to avoid a complete disappointment. It never felt credible to me that Erik would have not only accepted the strangers into his home but also sign the ownership away to them. This could have been resolved by indicating that they were financially sound and using another means to justify their actions, but money is given as the primary purpose of bringing more people in.

Of the ten lead characters, at least five seem to be shallow to the point of superfluity. It felt to me that having ten people in close proximity would have been the perfect platform for friction that never truly surfaced. Perhaps Vinterberg, who based the story on his real-life experiences, was too rooted in sticking to reality to throw in something to spice the plot up. Or perhaps two hours isn’t enough time to successfully explore so many characters.

The real engine of the story is Anna, portrayed brilliantly by Dyrholm. When Erik starts having an affair with one of his students, we are taken on an emotional journey with Anna that serves as the driving force of the final third of the film. Her only support network is through the people in the commune, but being there means she has to live alongside her husband’s new lover. It is an uneasy watch, at times heartbreaking, as Dyrholm is allowed to flex her acting muscles with a powerhouse of a performance. The heartbreaking moment when her daughter takes matters into her own hands is as powerful as anything I’ve seen at the cinema this year.

It is a film fundamentally about family and community spirit and how effective that can be despite an unconventional setup. Vinterberg isn’t afraid of allowing the story to take bold turns, even if it doesn’t setup the happy ending many cinema-goers would hope for.

Matching up a strong storyline with a handful of top-level performances is always a recipe for success. A flawed but thoroughly gratifying film.

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