Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) just turned 48, and lived in a commune from the age of 7 until he was 19. It’s no great surprise, then, that his latest film, The Commune, is set in just such a shared community in 1975. The real wonder is that it took him so long.

The story spends its first act setting up how the commune was set up – though given the depth of the story to follow, it might have been better to just jump right in. Married couple Erik and Anna (Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Dyrholm) have just inherited a house in Copenhagen that is far too big and expensive to maintain for just them and their 14-year-old daughter, Freja.

And so Anna hits on the idea of starting a commune. She suggests that their friend Ole move in, and a quick montage later they are nine strong, including a foreign guy who cries a lot, and a couple whose precocious six-year-old is not expected to live past the age of nine, and who tells people this prognosis at every opportunity.

Given the resolution with which Anna has suggested their first housemate, we’re primed to suspect some infidelity involving the pretty TV journalist and the slightly younger man whose girlfriend has just left him. But in fact it’s Erik who winds up wandering, falling into bed with Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), a student at the university where he teaches a course in modern architecture.

This would be bad enough, but when Freja catches him and Emma on a weekend when everyone else has gone to the country, Erik decides to come clean with his wife – and he holds nothing back, telling her he’s in love. Anna, putting on a remarkably brave face, suggests that Emma join the commune.

What follows is an incredible performance by Dyrholm as a woman doing her best to keep things together when her entire world seems to be falling apart, and with everyone – daughter, husband, new mistress, half-a-dozen housemates – right there to witness the unraveling. It’s a wonder she manages to keep herself in one piece for as long as she does.

It all comes to a head when Anna starts sharing her sorrow a little too openly – the Danish equivalent of TMI would be FMI, or “for meget information” – and when Erik (who’s turning into quite the jerk) suggests he’s too busy to do anything for his wife. “The point of a commune is you support each other,” he grouses, suggesting she speak to someone else.

The Commune is decidedly not a celebration of the communal lifestyle, but Vinterberg is clearly not damning it either. Like every other form of family grouping, from single-with-cat to three-generations-under-one-roof, it engenders moments of joy and frustration and anxiety, pretty much in equal measure.

In their brief discussion before embarking on this social experiment, Erik suggests that people need to be close to their families, not spread out across 5,000 square feet. Anna retorts that perhaps living in a small place makes one small-minded. Erik soon proves that you can do that in a villa as easily as in a shack.

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