A story about the clash between personal desires, solidarity and tolerance in a Danish commune in the 1970s.

Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Writers: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg
Stars: Ulrich Thomsen, Fares Fares, Trine Dyrholm

Subtitled in English


Thomas Vinterberg is fascinated by closed communities, and how they come apart.

The terrific Danish filmmaker’s work takes place in a variety of settings – the family feast in “The Celebration,” a small town rocked by scandal in “The Hunt,” the English countryside in “Far From the Madding Crowd” – where the world is always structured, shut.

And then something breaks it open.

In his new film, “The Commune,” the time and place is mid-’70s Copenhagen, where Erik, a stuffy academic, has just inherited the family mansion. It’s too big and too expensive to keep, he declares, but his bored wife, Anna, has an idea – why not turn it into a commune?

And so the seeds for disaster are planted.

Because the practical, conservative Erik is soon going to find himself dangerously liberated by this new lifestyle. And the unsatisfied, slightly restless Anna is going to discover that she may be a lot less free and liberal than she thought.

Vinterberg has always been a careful and patient observer, and his film focuses on not only how his main characters change, but how the collective does, as alliances shift and power accretes.

One man quickly tries to grab a leadership role; another takes advantage of the commune’s limitless beer. One woman assumes a meek, non-confrontational stance on every controversy; another forms a quiet, sisterly alliance with Anna – an alliance that grows more crucial once Erik falls into an affair with one of his students.

Vinterberg helped found his country’s self-consciously minimalist “Dogme 95” movement – remember that? – and while its strictest prohibitions against musical scores or directorial credits have long been abandoned, Vinterberg still adheres to some of its tenets.

He likes to use a handheld camera, and relies on closeups. He avoids the sort of encased-in-irony details beloved by Hollywood filmmakers (the ’70s time period is indicated only by a shag haircut or two and some pop songs). And he reveres powerful, naturalistic acting.

So “The Commune” showcases a fine performance from long-time collaborator Ulrich Thomsen as Erik, a mild man whose period outbursts of rage only underline how ineffectual he feels. And it gives itself over to a beautiful job by Trine Dyrholm, who heartbreakingly captures the pain of a woman realizing age is no friend.

Like the deer-in-the-headlights shock of Helene Reingaard Neumann, as the student who finds her affair with a professor growing uncomfortably complicated. Or the gravely quiet Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen, as the married couple’s teenage daughter, Freja.

The teen tries to be cool, detached; in an early scene, as her parents argue, she watches their reflection on a blank TV, her own personal broadcast of “Scenes From a Marriage.” But, like everyone else in the movie, her attitude is strictly a pose. And the close confines of communal life will eventually force her to drop it.

The movie smartly avoids nostalgia, showing how this lifestyle of free love and revolution could devolve into jealousy and rules (the collective’s mandatory “house meetings” soon resemble little Cultural Revolution events). Yet it captures the camaraderie that drew people to it, too; at times, as we watch these people sitting happily around the evening meal, it feels like some never-made prequel to “The Big Chill.”

But, of course, we know how that worked out for those happy hippies. And we suspect we know how it will work out here, as well.

– STEPHEN WHITTY, Newark Star-Ledger