Culture

Boredom vs. Chaos in The Commune

The Commune (Photo: Trust Nordisk)
A new film reveals the dark side of shared living and free love.

‘I’m bored.” Those two words are all it takes to begin the dismantling of a settled bourgeois family in The Commune, a subtly devastating new film from the Danish writer-director Thomas Vinterberg. It makes apparent the relative attractiveness of boredom as against chaos.

In the movie — which debuts May 19 in a few theaters as well as via video-on-demand services such as Amazon and iTunes — Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) is a professor of “rational architecture,” and it’s a dry comment on the structural unsoundness that he is about to introduce into his household. When he inherits from his father the huge house where he grew up, one that is far too large for him and his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) and their 14-year-old daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen), he proposes to sell it immediately. Though both he and Anna, a television newscaster, are successful professionals, it’s late-1970s Copenhagen, and they can barely afford the heating bills of the manse. Anna falls in love with the place, but “You lose one another in a big house,” he warns, and that’s exactly what happens.

Anna convinces him that the thing to do is move in and fill up the house, college-style, with lots of others. “I’m bored Erik, I need change,” she says. She’s tired of his voice: “I’ve heard it all before. I need to hear someone else speak. Otherwise I’ll go mad.” Soon the house is peopled with half a dozen loose acquaintances and even a total stranger, and as a gesture of groovy togetherness everyone goes skinny-dipping together. A cover of The Who’s “Join Together” plays jubilantly on the soundtrack as the group struts through town and bustles obliviously into traffic. Who needs rules anymore? A new order has arrived. Property is now shared — Erik orders his baffled lawyer to draw up an agreement to simply divide up the deed to the house among all who live there. It need not be stated that marriage comes to seem like an assertion of sexual property rights and hence is no longer valid.

A companion piece to Together, the brilliant 2000 Swedish film by Lukas Moodysson that portrayed a similar situation with a drolly satiric tone, The Commune is darker and more disturbing. Vinterberg, who is best known for the Danish films The Celebration (1998) and The Hunt (2012) and the English-language Far from the Madding Crowd (2015), has undertaken to make dramatic sense out of two episodes in his life: His childhood (from age 7 to 19) in a commune, an experience he says he loved, and his decision, in his late 30s, to divorce his wife of many years and marry a woman nearly 20 years his junior, Helene Reingaard Neumann.

In the film Neumann plays Emma, a grad student who captures Erik’s attention after class and embarks on an affair with him. Vinterberg draws a parallel between this marital lapse and the infectious disorder in the commune, where, it turns out, no one wants to do the dishes or pay for the beer. Despite the spirit of openness, Erik doesn’t inform Anna he’s taken a lover, but Freja discovers the truth when she returns home unexpectedly one day. The anxiety on Hansen’s face is harrowing to behold. Seeking escape, she starts a sexual relationship she isn’t ready for while Anna grows hollow, haunted.

The responsibility for your spouse’s emotional well-being is like the responsibility for doing the dishes. If it’s everyone’s problem, it’s no one’s problem.

Vinterberg delicately but conclusively connects all of this rule-breaking and norm-discarding. Once the home is redefined as not a private, closed-off shelter in which a family can flourish but as a wide-open party space in which anything goes, moral and emotional rot seep in. The disastrous political implications of the commune are unavoidable as well; a society that is officially leaderless creates a power vacuum. This creates an opportunity for the house member with the most pronounced authoritarian streak simply to declare himself the “chieftain” and start making arbitrary and cruel decisions, even randomly burning the possessions of a weaker member of the tribe.

The politics go deeper than that, though. In a society in which citizens are instructed that all are members of the same family, the upshot is not that everyone loves everyone but that no one cares about anyone else. (Background chatter about Pol Pot, a fellow devotee of communes who is discussed at the TV news station where Anna works, may not be mere happenstance.) The responsibility for, say, your spouse’s emotional well-being is like the responsibility for doing the dishes. If it’s everyone’s problem, it’s no one’s problem. As Erik’s wife breaks down, he says he’s too busy at work to think about it and demands the group fix the problem his infidelity created. “That’s the point of a commune,” he says. “You support each other.”

Does The Commune amount to shooting fish in a barrel? I don’t think so. It isn’t just a rebuke to shaggy Seventies ideals of shared living and free love. It undercuts the seductive central promise of social-democratic dogma, which is that the state will make your troubles go away if only you submit to its loving embrace.

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— Kyle Smith is National Reviews critic-at-large.

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