Issues of Ownership

THE COMMUNE (KOLLEKTIVET) (PG) 2016 Denmark 111mins, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, with Trine Dyrholm, Artificial Eye.

The Commune is set in the 70s, when living together in a shared household was perhaps more a political act than the economic necessity it is today. The sharers are older, (two of the couples have children, one a teen, one under ten) are more or less established in life, and the house they live in is very desirable, and large. Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) has been estranged from his father all his adult life, he is now in his 40s, but has been left his childhood home when his father dies. Rather than selling, as he would prefer, for an attractively large sum, his wife, Anna (Trine Dyrholme) talks him into the idea of communal living, and off we go.

Thomas Vinterberg, the director, is famous for his first major film, Festen, an arthouse hit, successfully adapted to the West End stage, but he is most well known for the political stand he took with his countryman, the famously contentious Lars von Trier, in creating the film-making movement, Dogme, with its ten commandments of simplicity, a kind of sandals and sackcloth ideal from the late 90s.

The Dogme thing was to dispense with all the annoying stuff which wasted so much time and cost so much money when making a film: no props apart from what were there, no lighting apart from what was either natural or could be switched on, no music apart from what could played on the day, no complicated things to put the camera on, just hold it in your hand. You get the idea. Computer generated effects were out, as was any kind of film trickery. It was back to what mattered, the story and the actors.

I don't know how true he's been to these principles here, but what he has done, and it's in the spirit of that movement, is create a fictional situation which mirrors the relations the actors and filmmaker experience when making the film. Characters coming together to share living arrangements is essentially the same thing as actors coming together to tell a story.

What's so amazing about that? Isn't that what actors always do?

On the one hand, probably not exactly, and on the other, the audience perception of how a film is made varies from this quite markedly.

For right or wrong, a film is generally credited as owned by someone, usually the director: Martin Scorsese's 'what have you'. The film is normally based on a script, by somebody, which could be an adaptation of another work, book, play, etc. also owned by someone. And these ownership issues aren't just for fun. They are legally binding copyright. Don't mess with a copyright lawyer. It isn't worth the threat to your sanity.

There's absolutely no doubt that since Dogme was invented, Danish film and television have had a revolutionary influence. What sets apart series such as The Killing and Borgen? Why have they been so successful?

I'd like to take a guess.

Take away all those things which the director owns and hand ultimate ownership and responsibility to the actors (just as Erik hands ownership of the house to the commune) and you end up with something completely different. The actors have to step up. To continue the football analogy, the team that plays as a team will generally beat the group of stars playing for themselves.

And the Danish actors really do play together. They give it their all. There is a metaphor in the film for this. Erik's friend tells Erik's daughter that once he saw Erik get into such a rage that he fainted. He, the friend was there to catch him. Later in the film we see Erik in such a rage, and we see him faint, and he is caught, this time by all his house-mates. And the rage is utterly believable. It really would make you faint. But it's not the individual performance that matters, it's that the actors present this situation together.

Too complex? Too esoteric? I think that the actors in these films own the films, and they own them together. This makes the overall production that much more believable, more engaging. And more successful.

This is a film which rewards being seen more than once. There are lots of details, both humorous and affecting, that are easy to miss on a first viewing. Within the larger story of the collective is the specific relationship between Erik, Anna and their daughter, Freya. Anna, despite the collective being her idea, as a well-known news reader and television personality, ultimately struggles with the challenge of not necessarily being the star at home.

This is a clever, subtle film as much about the art of filmmaking as it is about house sharing. And there are all the rewards we've come to expect from Danish dramas, an honesty and commitment to relationships that are never sentimental or superficial.

Paul Corcoran