Director Thomas Vinterberg and actress Trine Dyrholm discuss their first collaboration since 1998’s The Celebration.
In 1998, Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg released The Celebration. One of the defining films of modern Scandinavian cinema, Vinterberg took an entirely unique approach to crafting his family drama by forbidding the use of artificial lights, built sets, and placed props. Since then, Vinterberg has been nominated for an Oscar for his devastating 2012 film The Hunt. Also making waves in Danish cinema is actress Trine Dyrholm. Dyrholm appeared in The Celebration and would go on to star in Susanne Bier Oscar-winning In a Better World. Nearly twenty years later, Vinterberg and Dyrholm reunite for The Commune, Vinterberg’s unusually comedic film about life in a 1970s Danish commune. In anticipation of the film’s upcoming release, I spoke to the two greats of Danish cinema about their reunion and the politics of communal living.
You both collaborated on The Celebration eighteen years ago. Why wait so long to reunite?
Thomas Vinterberg: I am always looking for opportunities to work with Trine. She’s the most fine-tuned instrument you can find. I’ve always enjoyed that collaboration. I thought here was the chance to reunite with a purpose. I also felt that it was interesting to spin off of that thing we did together back then. The Celebration ended with them getting married and heading off to Paris. I thought, well here they are again as a couple. They grew up, and they matured, and here they are. I thought that was an interesting mirror.
Trine Dyrholm: I’ve always missed working with Thomas. So I was just happy that he called. For me, it was an inspiring collaboration because I think we’ve gained so much experience and it is much more interesting now to discuss the characters, the script, and work together. Thomas has become a very very talented director. He was already back then, but it was much more chaotic. Now he is very tough and is a good leader on set. At the same time, he can make an open space where you’re allowed to explore and find out things together. For me, it was a huge experience.
Thomas Vinterberg: It was a very different experience this time because Trine obviously had a bigger part in this. She has read so many scripts and been involved in so many films that she has developed a talent for knowing what a script needs. She’s rather demanding actually and challenging, which was fantastic. It paid off incredibly well in the film.
You used the word ‘chaotic’ to describe the production of The Celebration. I imagine when you’re working on that film with natural light and the Dogme 95 rules it can be very different than this film, which sounds much more controlled.
Trine Dyrholm: Actually, there were similar things. When we were sitting at the table with the whole commune, I felt, I’m a little older now, but it could have been…
Thomas Vinterberg: One of those days. Yes, there were many similarities. People are sitting around the dinner table who have crazy problems. The irony of Dogme, back then, actually was exposed by Trine. As much as we wanted to limit ourselves – we meaning me and Lars von Trier – as much as we limited ourselves and framed our work by these rules, we tried to set them free. Trine, to begin with, was a tiny bit discontent with that. She thought it wasn’t necessary creatively that I was saying, “You can just use the whole room. We’ll follow you with the camera. Whatever you like.” That’s not creative. We had the impression as directors that our actors and actresses wanted that, but actually, the country was the occasion. We had to start inventing limitations and rules and games to reinspire the actors.
People have described this film as being autobiographical. What does it mean for you to draw on something from your life?
Thomas Vinterberg: Well this is not based on a true story; it’s based on a true feeling. It’s been a stage play. So this is a play improvised by some actors in Vienna. All their midlife crises and divorces and whatever has been mixed into this, so it’s no longer my private story. Still, it’s very personal. I’ve been going through a tough divorce; I’ve grown up in a commune. I had a lot of experience that I could draw from. It’s a mix. It’s not exactly autobiographical, but it’s still made by a guy who grew up on a commune. There are similarities, there are parallels, but altogether it’s fiction. An example, they didn’t vote, my commune. They would talk it to the end until everyone agreed, but then the film would have been thirty-four hours. So we agreed in the stage play that we would make some fun out of voting.
Something I found very interesting about the film is how the members of the commune sort of serve as an audience to Eric and Anna’s problems. It’s very interesting that we’re watching people watching.
Thomas Vinterberg: That’s interesting. I never thought of that. I thought of, particularly Anna, but Anna and Erik’s relationship in the context of sharing. She has a dream, ideology, of sharing. She want’s to share her life with other people in a house, and she’s generous enough even to try and share her husband, and the house with her husband’s new wife. She becomes the ultimate experiment of that time. How much can you share before you break apart? Before you disintegrate your ego? Before you become nothing? I’m not answering your question. Maybe Trine can answer it.
Trine Dyrholm: Well I think it’s a big theme, what you mentioned, that you have an audience, you have witnesses to your downfall. That’s what a commune is, you’re together, and you’re sharing everything. You detour the route. At the end, when the daughter has to be the grownup and decide who is going to move, that is a family’s private life played out in a theater, in the room.
Thomas Vinterberg: The most powerful scene in the whole film, other than the one where you break down in the TV studio, is the one where you come home drunk, and you talk about having sex with other people. That’s a complete exposure of your inner desire in front of an audience.
Anna is such a great character. The commune is her idea, yet it seems to completely backfire against her.
Trine Dyrholm: I think she wants to be a free spirit and she wants everybody else to be free as well. She’s longing for something that she doesn’t know in the beginning. She’s bored of traditional family life, and I think that the commune for her is an idea of sharing everything. At that time it was normal, and you were kind of old fashioned if you didn’t allow all these things to happen. I like when she suggests the husband’s lover to move in. That’s what Mads [Mikkelsen] and Hanne do as well, well it’s not Mads and Hanne. Another couple. Well, it’s like, they do, and we can do it. I’ve talked to many women of that time, and some of them had a tough time because they were not allowed to show their real feelings.
Thomas Vinterberg: It was possessive to want your husband all for yourself.
Trine Dyrholm: And it is! The thought is good.
Thomas Vinterberg: There’s a line where Anna says, “Why did you tell me? You must love her if you’re telling me. It would have been okay not to tell me”.
Trine Dyrholm: “and if you’re not in love, just have sex with her.”
Thomas Vinterberg: Which was very normal for that time. Which shows how generous this character is.
Trine Dyrholm: I think it’s an interesting portrait to tell the story of a woman who had very high ideals and becomes a victim of her ideas. I can identify with it. You have high ideals, but you can’t live up to those ideals.
Anna’s breakdown at the end of the film certainly brings to mind the performances of Gena Rowlands. Did her Cassavetes films ever come to mind while doing The Commune?
Thomas Vinterberg: We both love Gena Rowlands. Maybe the hair.
Trine Dyrholm: Well I like her a lot. I didn’t look at her particularly, but of course, that’s the time also. We were inspired by that period, by Cassavetes and her of course.
This does seem like a lighter film for you. I think when people go into a Vinterberg film they expect this draining, somewhat horrific experience considering The Celebration and The Hunt. Even the disparity that runs throughout Far From the Madding Crowd. I was surprised by how often I was laughing during this film.
Thomas Vinterberg: I heard laughter building up at the opening in Copenhagen. Then you step onto this stage and create this beautiful arc.
Trine Dyrholm: Well The Celebration is very fun as well. It does have comedy elements.
Thomas Vinterberg: I found a DVD of The Celebration in New York categorized as a comedy.
Trine Dyrholm: I think this film is a Thomas Vinterberg film. It’s a combination of light and trauma.
Thomas Vinterberg: I agree with that actually, whereas The Hunt is just dark.
Trine Dyrholm: Wasn’t it funny as well?
Thomas Vinterberg: In moments.
Trine Dyrholm: I had a few laughs.
Well, The Hunt might just be Danish-funny. I have a dark sense of humor, so I can find something to laugh at in almost any film. But damn, that film is one draining experience.
Thomas Vinterberg: We enjoy stepping into the pain. It’s like people enjoying watching horror movies and getting scared. It’s just a Scandinavian tradition.
That’s a wonderful way to put it. I think perhaps that’s what I like so much about Scandinavian cinema. It finds a way to explore these feelings that will evoke almost the same reaction as a horror film.
Thomas Vinterberg: If you say the name of the troll, it will become smaller. I guess that’s why we talk about these matters all the time.
The Commune opens in a limited release on Friday, May 19.
Related Topics: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)