Sydney Film Festival: The Commune

Scott Wallace
12th Jun 2016

In The Commune, a partly autobiographical comedy-drama from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, the hippie dream of communal living is unpicked and unpacked. The film explores the differences between physical distance and emotional distance, people's need for intimacy, and the power of empathy with charm, humour and biting eloquence. 

Set in the early 1970s, the film begins with architect Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), along with his newscaster wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) and their fourteen-year-old daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), visiting the enormous house that belonged to Erik's recently deceased father. Seeking something fresh in her life, Anna asks that they move into the house, and invite others to live with them communally to make it affordable. 

Joined by the likes of the impetuous Ole (Lars Ranthe), couple Steffen (Magnus Millang) and Ditte (Ann Gry Henningsen) and their six-year-old son Vilads (Sebastian Grønnegaard Milbrat), and others - as well as copious amounts of communal beer - they adjust quickly to their new lives, but soon discover that such a crowded house can drown out their intimacy, forcing them to find it elsewhere.

The ensemble team are brilliantly cast and directed, and immediately the film creates a strong sense of the house dynamics. Each character is present and three-dimensional, even the almost cartoonishly sensitive Mona (Julie Agnete Vang) and the humorously morbid Vilads who suffers from a heart condition. Eventually it is Anna who becomes the focus of the film, and Dyrholm's performance is marvellous, strongly reminiscent of the great Gena Rowlands in films like Opening Night or A Woman Under the Influence, as she comes face-to-face with the darkest parts of herself - jealousy, rage and despair.

The Commune navigates the complexities of love - romantic, familial and fraternal - and refuses to tell its story in simple binary terms. There is an emotional maturity and eloquence that doesn't offer the audience an easy solution. Through long scenes of dialogue that can be rambling and often obtuse, the film weaves together stories - of Anna's alienation, Erik's conflict, Freja's need for affection, and the house's communal stability as a whole - without ever seeming that a story is being consciously built. 

The Commune is warm, funny, sad, and uplifting all at once. It's far less radical than the work for which Thomas Vinterberg is largely known outside of Denmark, but it still has the loose feel and strong momentum that makes all of his films so engaging. It's brilliantly paced with a crop of superb performances, bringing the odd (but oddly relatable) story to an arresting emotional climax that won't let you hear Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" the same way ever again. 

The Commune is screening as part of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival. See below for screening times.