Open relationships are torture
“The Commune,” the new 1970s period piece from Danish writer/director Thomas Vinterberg, begins when architect Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) inherits a huge house. His own family, with wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) and daughter Freja (Martha Sophie Wallstrøm Hansen), is too little to fill it, and they can’t afford its upkeep. So they have a sweet, laughing romp-through, the wife and daughter mimicking bird calls from the most distant rooms of the house to see if they can be heard downstairs, and then Erik is ready to leave.
But his wife stops him. She sees in this big house her chance to live the ’70s dream of communal living. Why not ask some of their friends to join them?
And so the morality tale begins, for “The Commune” is a grim portrayal of commune life in general and open marriages specifically. Anna and Erik’s commune is festooned with red flags from the very beginning, and I am not talking about their politics. They are not really i dealists (politics is virtually never mentioned, and definitely never practiced, in this movie) and their commune has no higher purpose. What they seek is a life where nobody has to sacrifice. Anna wants to escape her boredom with her husband: “I need to hear someone else speak,” she exclaims. Erik, uptight and prone to fits of rage, hopes extra people will help pay for the house. But the real cost, of course, proves to be emotional.
“The Commune” could serve as a “what not to do” checklist. Don’t giggle your way through an embarrassed silence when prospective communards ask you if you have any house rules. Don’t bring in an unemployed man with no other options because you feel sorry for him; but if you do, don’t let your awful friend berate him with racist taunts about his “mother in Unga Bunga.” Don’t ignore your daughter because you’re too busy with your own drama. Don’t burn other people’s things!
Don’t move your student-mistress into your commune. Not even if your wife says she wants you to.
“The Commune” is a punishing movie; it’s 111 minutes but feels longer. I don’t blame the actors. Dyrholm and Hansen are especially fine, gifted at expressing every shade of misery. The scene where Erik confesses his adultery, and Anna forgives him because she can’t bear to lose him, is almost impossibly painful to watch. But there will be a point when you’ve gotten all “The Commune” has to give you, and you’ve still got twenty minutes of crying to go.
In a perhaps unfair comparison, I followed up “The Commune” with 2000’s “Together.” Both movies are Scandinavian 1970s commune/free-love flicks. (And fair warning, both have about as much unprepossessing nudity as you’d expect from a Scandinavian free-love flick.) But “Together” is a comedy from Lukas Moodysson, the writer/director behind 2013’s stellar “We Are the Best!,” a tale of barely-adolescent punker chicks in early ’80s Stockholm who befriend their school’s lone Christian because she can actually play an instrument.
Like “Best!,” “Together” is a period-piece fable of reconciliation. It’s a point-by-point reversal of “The Commune”—almost. Its communards are intensely if sometimes ridiculously political. (The adults fight about whether Pippi Longstocking is a capitalist; the children play “Pinochet and political prisoner.”) If one member’s daughter summarizes their ethos as, “We have ugly clothes and we listen to bad music,” at least they’re not comfortable bourgeois people trying to get away with something. The commune in “Together” is a real refuge for those who need it, like the woman fleeing a drunken husband who hit her. The film’s moral is stated bluntly: “Loneliness is the most awful thing in this world. Better to eat porridge together than pork cutlet alone.”
Where “The Commune” ends with the breakup of its central couple and the formation of a new couple (this is the American solution, Why don’t you do the right thing and divorce?), “Together” ends with a reunion. Even the violent husband can be brought into the fold, albeit tentatively. The depiction of this man’s transformation in “Together” is especially insightful. He needs the loneliness and humiliation which are the consequences of his actions… but also the friendship and sometimes-misguided encouragement of a similarly lonely and miserable older man.
Where the two films agree is that open relationships are torture. Together’s villain is the promiscuous, predatory Lena, who pressures her long-suffering boyfriend Göran into pretending he’s okay with her infidelity. Out of every misdeed in this movie, only Lena’s are decisively punished. This might seem like a skewed message—domestic violence is forgivable but open relationships aren’t? But the film hints that Lena is only starting her journey toward the humility that can come, if she finds a refuge in which to come to terms with her humiliation.
“Together” is hopeful and funny, and I suspect that’s because its characters—unlike the couple at the center of “The Commune”—are willing from the start to sacrifice for one another.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. She is working on a book on vocation for gay Catholics. Her email is email@example.com and she can be found on Twitter at @evetushnet.