Thomas Vinterberg’s Bittersweet ‘The Commune’ Doesn’t Quite Translate

Asking someone what it was like to be raised a certain way is sort of like asking someone what it’s like to be colorblind. How would they know? That’s just their reality. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg — former collaborator of Lars Von Trier and co-founder of the Dogme 95 collective — lived in a hippie commune from the age of seven to 19, and judging by The Commune, his movie loosely based on, or at least inspired by the experience, he still doesn’t quite know how to feel about it. Or at least, how to explain it. And so we’re left with a not entirely un-pleasing headscratcher, a jumble of elusive feelings that would perhaps be better left to a therapist than a viewer.

Ulrik Thomsen plays Erik, an architecture professor, and Trine Dyrholm Anna, his newscaster wife in ’70s Copenhagen. The film opens with a real estate agent appraising the stately brick house Erik has just inherited from his dead father. It’s worth a big chunk of change and Erik wants to sell it, something about financial problems. He seems fairly set on this course of action, yet Anna quickly talks him out of that and into doing the exact opposite, with almost zero prodding. She wants to turn it into a commune. “I’m bored, Erik. I’ve heard it all before,” she tells him. “I need to hear someone else speak, or else I’ll go mad.”

It’s a devastating yet banal take on the devastating banality of monogamy. And so she starts picking her fantasy commune team, starting with middle aged, Sean Penn-like bachelor Ole (Lars Ranthe), their old friend who drinks beer and makes vague reference to leftist literature. Erik doesn’t seem to like him very much, but goes along anyway, and then the three of them (along with their 14-year-old daughter, Freja) start interviewing other candidates to fill out the house. Everything about it seems like a terrible idea, and everyone they choose like an awful fit. But everyone just accepts with a smirk — no candidates declining, no candidates rejected — as if they’re all following the same unspoken script as an inside joke.

They eventually add a dowdy hippie couple and their morbid six-year-old (“I’ll be dead by nine,” he’s fond of saying), and a busty Earth mother named Mona (played by Julie Agnete Vang). When they interview Allon, played by the awesomely named Lebanese-Swedish actor Fares Fares, Mona can’t understand anything he says even though he’s speaking her language, and the rest of the house has to repeat everything he just said. I guess because he’s foreign and she’s racist? It’s sort of funny, but so much of it doesn’t translate, from the accent to the cultural norms to the context to even what country Allon might be from or whether he’s even foreign at all (he’s certainly swarthy).

Even more inexplicably, Erik gets angry at Allon for no apparent reason and starts screaming at him like a lunatic. Allon cries, and the group votes him in, despite that no one seems to like him and he doesn’t have any money, and Allon accepts, even though his experience of this potential commune has thus far consisted of being patronized by a racist and berated by a psychotic. What is even happening in this movie?

The characters all seem too old to be living in a commune, and you get a vague sense that they’re all trying relive some idealized youth, Tenenbaums style. There’s also a hint that communal living has some connection to free love. But if that was their motivation, they seem remarkably chaste, aside from one communal skinny dipping scene, which one could read as either erotic or simply Scandinavian.

The most compelling thing The Commune can muster is a vague sense of longing, of the you-can’t-go-home-again variety — the commune lasts only as long as the unselfish utopianism of youth, and it dies as soon as you grow up like Pooh and Christopher Robin. A story this subtle can work, but it’s hard to be swept away by a story when you’re constantly baffled by the characters.

Erik isn’t just an asshole, he’s a nonsensical asshole, reasonable one minute and then literally fainting from rage the next. Anna starts as a strong, forthright woman and descends into a hysterical caricature, which feels not only sexist, but vaguely vindictive. More importantly, it’s goofily over the top and not that interesting.

Vinterberg himself has some interesting things to say about the time period — about how the ’70s gave us the freedom to break from convention and the ’80s gave us individualism — but The Commune almost studiously avoids offering any kind of take on the idea of communes. You wouldn’t even know it’s set in the ’70s, but for the clothes and the occasional news report about Vietnam (a symbol for… something?). Vinterberg seems much more interested in exploring these characters, but without annotation it’s hard to know exactly why.