I Am Curious (Collective): Beware What You Wish For

I recently reviewed Rajko Grlić’s The Constitution, the gala screening that launched the 12th annual South East European Film Festival, writing that the Croatia-set moviereminded me of the joy of discovering those ‘foreign’ films by Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, et al, at an arthouse that transported us beyond Hollywood glitz and glamour to a more ‘sophisticated’ cinematic view of the world beyond our shores.” I also felt this way after seeing Danish director/co-writer Thomas Vinterberg’s Copenhagen-set The Commune (Kollektivet) - although it’s not nearly as good or as much fun as the all-too-human The Constitution.  

Scandinavian cinema is a sub-set of the foreign film phenomenon. On the one hand, you have the philosophical introspection into the human condition of Bergman, his fellow Swede Victor Sjöström and Denmark-born Carl Theodor Dreyer, who confront the void and ask: “What’s it all about, anyway?”

On the other hand, you have Swedish director Vilgot Sjöman’s 1967 I Am Curious (Yellow) with its nudity and depictions of sex acts. The film’s sexplicit scenes led to a censorship battle that went all the way to the (U.S. - not Swedish) Supreme Court. Curious’ victory in the high court set in motion the wheels of greater screen freedom that we still feel today, so that, for instance, the tightness of Kerry Washington’s character Olivia Pope’s vagina can be referred to on the broadcast (not cable) network TV series Scandal. So Shonda Rhimes arguably owes much to Curious, as does the screen stereotype of Scandinavian sexual freedom.

Vinterberg - who, according to press notes, lived in a Danish collective “from the age of 7 to 19” - combines both of these trends, the metaphysical and the overtly physical, in The Commune. Anna (Trine Dyrholm, of Vinterberg’s shattering 1998 The Celebration) is a nationally prominent newscaster married to architecture professor Erik (Ulrich Thomsen reunites with his The Celebration co-star). Perhaps because of her measure of fame Anna seeks to spice their all-too-conventional life up by proposing they turn a large house Erik has just inherited into a commune.

The feature, co-written by Tobias Lindholm, does a poor job of conveying that, according to press notes, “experiment[ing] with communal living… was all the rage in Scandinavia at the time.” Danish audiences may be aware of this, but we Yankee Doodle Dandies are unlikely to have a clue about this, so it seems that Anna is just pulling this idea out of her shapely derriere. Commune also does a poor job of communicating exactly what era this - American auds have only a handful of references to Vietnam and Cambodia during Anna’s newscasts to pin the time down to the mid- to late 1970s. As a period piece, in terms of costuming, cars and the like, this movie fails to set a time and place and I really didn’t grasp that this story was set in the 1970s until around halfway through it. Perhaps this is second nature to Danes but if filmmakers want overseas auds to buy tickets to their pictures, let alone understand them, some exposition, if you please.

In any case Anna’s wish is granted by Erik - and Commune becomes a cautionary tale about what one wishes for and when those whims come true. A motley crew of communards is assembled - sometimes this Copenhagen kibbutz seems full of kibitzers. It includes members who can’t afford to pay their share of the rent - which is yet another of the film’s inconsistencies, as one of Erik’s rationales for turning his big inherited home near a lake into a collective is that this is the only way he can afford to live in what had been his childhood home.

Commune comments on the strengths and weaknesses of communal life, which includes raising Erik and Anna’s teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen, who does a good job internalizing and expressing the strains of her parents’ relationship as she herself comes of age) and a sickly little boy. At its best, the commune enables people to stick together and have a sense of solidarity, that they are not confronting the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune which life can hurl at you all alone. From sharing meals to tragedy, collectivity can make coping in Copenhagen easier, existence can be better when it’s done together.

But even if communal experimentation was all the rage in Scandinavia at the time, there is precious little musing upon socialism as a way of life here, although leftwing politics may be referenced here and there, and the communards do have periodic town hall-like meetings. To be fair, Commune also deals with the theme of ownership and private property. But it is no socialist screed, unlike Peter Watkins’ 2000 La Commune (Paris, 1871), a five hour, 45 minute movie about the world’s first, if short-lived, workers’ state. Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s 2000 Together, which is also set in a 1970s Scandinavian collective, likewise dealt more with the political implications inherent in this subject matter of people choosing to reject capitalism and its bourgeois notions of individualism.  

The adults go skinny dipping and along with nudity, there are lots of sex scenes. Ultimately, the commune is consumed by romantic entanglements that are pitted against the entire collective enterprise. So in the end The Commune is much more about sexuality and love than collective life and is overall apolitical. Vinterberg, who presumably has mixed feelings about his communal upbringing, does a decent job directing his ensemble. All of the actors acquit themselves well, notably Thomsen as the contradictory, temperamental Erik. Dyrholm, who comes to rue getting what she wished for (and some may interpret the movie as saying she got her comeuppance), won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival. 

It’s also a delight to see Julie Agnette Vang, who portrays communard Mona, back on the screen. She was outstanding as the parliamentarian Nete Buch in the superb Danish TV series Borgen, about Denmark’s first female prime minister and arguably one of the best television episodics ever. Vang is also extremely sexy and a joy to behold.

While popcorn munchers at the multiplex might want to stay home (except for those nude scenes), The Commune is for moviegoers who prefer their films to be foreign, off the beaten studio path, more thought-provoking and sexier than standard Hollywood fare.