Putting micro-societal life under a microscope seems to be the territory where Vinterberg excels the most – whether he is testing complicated family bonds in an unsettling and uncompromisingly complex Dogme 95 film Festen, or examining a small community that has its strength and tolerance tested by an innocent lie in The Hunt. After temporarily leaving his typical thematic area by exploring Victorian England in last year’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, he has now returned to his native Denmark and adapted one of his stage plays into what may be his most personal film yet.
Partly inspired by Vinterberg’s own upbringing in a hippie commune in the 70’s, it explores the ups and downs of a social experiment where multiple families try to live under the same roof, living by the principles of direct democracy where each of them, no matter the age, gender or monthly income, has an equal say, where everyone’s vote (including children’s) counts and where everyone’s opinion is heard and acknowledged. At least that seems to be the original idea. However, some of the members, their good intentions aside, seem to be far from immune to expanding individualism that is tearing down the collective spirit of the 70’s hippie era and things soon turn awry as some of them start to put their own aspirations and self-fulfilments before the collective good.
Erik and Ana (Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm) are a middle-aged couple with a teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) who find themselves at a crossroad after Erik inherits a mansion-like family house, clearly too big for a family of three to live there by themselves. Erik’s initial reaction is to sell it, but Ana seems to have something very different in mind: why wouldn’t they invite some friends to live with them instead? This way they could share all the expenses while also enjoy the company of interesting individuals. However I otherwise support this way of living, this has to be read as the first alarm of what is yet to become of their marriage, since the decision is not instantly unanimous and Erik, otherwise an architecture professor, needs some convincing by his wife whose main reason of establishing a commune is the need to fill a gap that started to spread through their marriage. Since Erik likes to repeat his stories and hardly ever says something interesting or surprising anymore, she wants to expand their “family” to enrich their dinner conversations – the commune is therefore hardly the reason for their marriage to fall apart, for their relationship starts to disintegrate long before any of the new house members moves into their communal home.
The first to join them is Ole, their old nomadic friend who moves into the house with nothing but a bag of clothes and leftist literature. The next addition to the family is a couple with a sick child, then there is promiscuous Mona and a foreigner Allon who barely speaks Danish, is prone to cry whenever he gets upset and has problems holding a job for more than a few weeks. Together they make a weird and interesting group of people that seem to thoroughly entertain Ana, while bringing nothing but frustration to Erik who starts to feel like his voice is no longer heard. And as most men who feel like their ego has been neglected, he turns for attention elsewhere. However, what was supposed to be a meaningless fling with one of his students ends up turning into a full-on affair. But it is not until his daughter accidentally walks in on him that he decides to come clean to the rest of the household, which throws the entire family, as well as the film itself, into a downward spiral of messy emotions and melodrama.
I would have wished for a fuller and more substantial development of the supporting characters, but as the film progresses they slowly start to fade into the background instead, clearing the battleground for the initial family members. It is now Erik who ties to push their social experiment even further by suggesting that he and his new girlfriend Emma should move in the commune while his wife is still living there – and it is here that the film starts to delve into melodrama all too frequently. But Dyrholm nonetheless manages to give a fantastic and nuanced performance as a woman who is trying to be open-minded about her husband’s affair, trying to accept and befriend his new woman, but gradually breaks down and completely falls apart, losing her job and family along the way.
There is one event in particular that shows how direct democracy, while great in theory, does not really work when people entitled to a vote do not perceive one another as entirely equal. After Erik’s initial proposition of Emma and him moving in, the rest of the household appears to be hesitant; they can see Anna’s poor mental condition and they don’t think their moving in would be good for an open and carefree communal life that they have established. Them voting Erik and Emma out of the house is, of course, the right call. However, this vote could have counted only if all of them would indeed be equal, without anyone having the authority over everyone else – which, of course, is not the case. This is, after all, Erik’s house – he is the owner who was prepared to cooperate at their decision making until he found himself in danger of getting thrown out of his home by people who moved in to help maintain the house and share the expenses. It is also Erik and Ana who are paying for the majority of the bills since they are the only ones with steady and well-paid jobs, while others hardly contribute anything when it comes to money. And it is here that their experimental way of living finally shows its messed-up baseline: not everyone’s voice can be equally important and equally heard if they are not, in fact, equal. For complete social equality to exist, economic equality needs to be achieved first – because as long as some will own and earn unproportionally more than the rest they will undoubtedly perceive themselves as more entitled to making decisions and expressing opinions. This scene may not be one of the most memorable in the film, but it is, in my opinion, a crucial one, for it is here that the hierarchy among the members of the commune is established and where democracy as well as their somewhat socialistic way of living, is finally and irreversibly defeated.
As we came to expect from Vinterberg, this is an excellent and engaging study of family dynamics, as well as of power relations and possibilities of collective living in general. How far are we prepared to go at making our private affairs public, of collectively making our life decisions? Of sharing everything we own and putting collective needs above our own? Not very far, is what Vinterberg is trying to show us – and this message seems to resonate even more in today’s world of beastly capitalism.
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Written by: Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Dyrholm, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen
Running Time: 111 minutes