‘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.
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.
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.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.