Undogmatic and Unimportant
“The Commune”, the new film from Thomas Vinterberg is uncomplicated mainstream cinema. Our reviewer Phil Butland believes that a former “Dogme 95” director could have done better
In the 1970s, some veterans of the 1968 movement tried to create local alternatives to capitalism. In places like West Berlin or the Copenhagen district of Christiania, new communes and squats emerged, driven by alternative lifestyles.
The most optimistic of the Communards thought that they could free themselves fully from the influences of the ruling system. Others were just looking for an island where they could escape some of the strictest restrictions of oppression and reproduction and where men and women could live with each other on equal terms.
The tension between such deeply held ideals and the daily negotiations of everyday life could be material for an interesting and funny film about human nature under capitalist society. Indeed, this film has been made. Unfortunately we’re not talking here about Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Commune” (in German cinemas from Thursday 21 April 2016), but “Together” which his Swedish compatriot Lukas Moodysson already made in 2000.
Social Experiment against Middle Class Boredom
Moodysson is a politically engaged director, and shares the desires of his protagonists for a fair society. His presents them with empathy, which allows him to occasionally poke fun at their foibles.
For Vinterberg – as for his characters, the architect Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm), a television presenter – it seems that the life in the collective is more of a personal experiment. Their aim is not to change the world, but to temporarily fight their own boredom. Although the film takes place in a highly political period, there is no discussion about politics, apart from a report on Cambodia that plays unwatched on the television.
Erik inherits a villa in a posh part of town, und he and Anna muss decide whether they should sell the house for a big profit, or make the effort to find rent-paying housemates. Money isn’t a real problem though – Erik can subsidize those who can’t afford to pay. While people in other communes often had to fight for survival – alongside their other political or social engagement. Erik, Anna and their guests form a privileged élite.
In truth, the other housemates are more guests than comrades with equal rights and privileges. When push comes to shove, Erik is prepared to invoke his rights as house owner. This inequality is mirrored in how the film is staged. The camera follows Erik, Anna and their daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) everywhere. The others are often little more than extras, almost without personal characteristics which distinguish each from the others.
Indifference and Manipulation
This means that we are confronted with a group of people whom we hardly know, und for whose first world problems we find it hard to sympathize. When they then start to experience real problems, we have too little interest in their fate to start to care. A relationship breaks up and the woman would have absolute justification in blaming her self-satisfied and arrogant partner. But as an audience we haven’t invested enough in the characters to worry too much when she finally gives up in the face of his indifference. Even less edifying: the life-threatening illness of a child provokes more the feeling that Vinterberg is trying to emotionally manipulate us than sympathy for the afflicted family.
This wouldn’t be so bad if Vinterberg were just another second-class Hollywood man. But he is the director of “Festen” – the first and arguably the best film produced by the Dogme 95 movement which aimed to make film more democratic and more honest. “Festen” shows the hypocrisy of an aristocratic family – this time Vinterberg’s sympathies seem to lie more with the rich. Even though we already knew that the director has long since left his dogmas behind in order to make mainstream films like “Far from the Madding Crowd”, we could have expected more from an artist who grew up in a commune himself.
“The Commune” is not a bad film – Vinterberg is too talented a director to produce garbage. But it is at the very least a missed opportunity. The best that I can say about the film is that it has encouraged me to watch Moodyson’s brilliant “Together” once more. This would also be my recommendation to readers of this review.
The original version of this review appears in German at https://www.marx21.de/die-kommune-undogmatisch-und-belanglos/.