The Commune

Set in 1970s Copenhagen, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune follows couple Erik and Anna and their teenage daughter Freya as they embark on a radical experiment in collective living. When Erik’s father passes away, the couple come into a too-big house in a too-expensive neighbourhood. Unable to bear the costs of living there alone, they decide the best solution is to open their doors and try on life beyond the nuclear family. “This huge fantastic house should be filled with fantastic people,” says Anna.

While the film is adorned with all props and pomades that distinguish its 1970s setting – a decade in which the disarmed but not quite defeated sensibilities of the revolutionary 1960s seeped into the routine practicalities of everyday life – Vinterberg’s film is no mere time capsule. Prizing human-scale drama over historical context – the geopolitical dramas of the day are alluded to occasionally during scenes of Anna working as a newsreader, but ultimately kept at a distance – The Commune is above all concerned with the basic contradiction of wanting both intimacy and independence, even as the two remain constitutively at odds with each other. To “intimate”, after all, is to deliberately avoid direct communication.

A vivid illustration of this negotiation comes early in the film, when the family play a game while scouting out the soon-to-be commune. Erik is overwhelmed by the size of the house, noting that it is big enough to get lost in. To quell his concerns, Anna and Freya hide in a room and whistle softly. From the opposite side of the house, Erik whistles in response. They can maintain distance while still disclosing themselves should the need arise. Ultimately, however, the film suggests this dilemma is not so easily resolved. When Ole, the first person outside the family to sign up for co-living, comes to take a look at his room, he complains that there is too much light: there are no shadows, he seems to suggest, in which to get lost.

The arduous work of collective living mostly works as advertised in Vinterberg’s commune. The film’s tension instead hinges on architecture professor Erik’s affair with a student of his, whom Anna invites to join the commune in a bid to cling on to a crude pantomime of family life after Erik confesses he is in love with her. Anna insists she wants Erik to be able to pursue his feelings, but cannot bear the proximity to his new relationship. There is the life we want, and the life we want to want.

In placing this familiar domestic drama against the backdrop of communal life, Vinterberg suggests that all the tensions typically associated with new forms of collective life are already present in intimacy’s more established forms. It’s not just in radical co-living experiments that fantastic visions of how we might live collide with the less-evocative realities of getting on in the world as it is, but couples, countries and any other institution in which our desire to define ourselves against and through others must contend with the inevitable interruptions those others bring. “‘I didn’t think it would turn out this way’ is the secret epitaph of intimacy,” the late theorist Lauren Berlant once wrote. The same quote is also a fitting epigraph for Vinterberg’s masterful study of the inward-facing fantasy of life with others.

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