21 June 2017

Alone Together

My Mirror column:

Living in collectivities can not only produce new relationships, but also new forms of individuality, as two powerful European films reveal.

I write this column from a friend’s charming old wooden Himachali house: a huge open balcony to welcome the sun and tightly shuttered rooms to block out the cold. The house is only opened for the summer, when she retreats here from the heat and dust of Delhi, bringing a variety of people with her. This summer’s assemblage consists of the friend, her 15-month-old baby, her 50-something male friend (whom I met here), the baby’s 18-year-old maid, and me. There are also two friendly locals who come in to help with provisions, cleaning and additional babysitting. Barring occasional expeditions to the river or the village, the emotional and material life of the household revolves around the next meal, the cooking of which is subject to the all-important task of Feeding The Baby. It has been an interesting exercise in communal living.

Serendipitously, while I’ve been up here, two friends in Delhi have been calling with updates on their respective rental searches: where to live, is the question – and whom to live with? Most people share domestic space with others at some point in their lives. Middle class young people leaving family homes often move to organised communal quarters – school or college hostels, or shared university flats. Shared homes remain the norm in early careers, too, for financial reasons.

But if you’re single and can afford it, then living alone, it seems, is the unspoken top of the hierarchy. The older one gets, the more unusual it becomes to live with anyone who isn’t either family or a romantic partner. The socially normative heterosexual coupledom at the core of these living arrangements is so deeply embedded as to really only strike most of us in absentia.

It is true that once your personal rules are set, to live with others is to test the limits of your adaptability. Unlike youthful communal spaces, whose appeal often lies in the suspension of childhood’s rules (or in breaking institutional ones), shared domesticity in later life is likely be based on the establishment of new ones.

In Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016), an architecture professor called Erik Moller inherits a house he dismisses as too large for his family. “Living together is about seeing each other,” he says, telling a broker to sell it for a million. But his wife Anna and teenaged daughter Freja have other ideas. Anna loves Erik, but two decades in, she needs newness – and what better way to create it than by inviting new people into a new sort of domestic life? “You speak all the time, and it’s sweet when you do, but it’s as if I’ve heard it all before. I need to hear someone else speak, otherwise I’ll go mad,” she says to her befuddled husband, proposing that they turn the many-roomed mansion into a commune. Friends bring in other friends, and soon there is a collective, a united front interviewing potential applicants.

And so, without any rebuilding, a classically bourgeois European home becomes a space that challenges the norms of bourgeois family life. Decisions now are made not to preserve coupledom, but a more expansive domesticity. It is not that familial love ceases to exist, but rather that the commune allows difficult emotional burdens – like a child’s terminal disease – to be shared across more shoulders. Meanwhile new freedoms and new proximities mean that people fall into new relationships – and sometimes out of old ones. The self-important Erik, increasingly lonely as the commune fills Anna’s emotional needs, starts an affair with a student. Anna, shaken but deep in her own love affair with the commune, invites Erik’s lover into it, saying: “There should be room for you, too. That’s what it’s all about.”

I happened to watch The Commune within a day of watching Swiss-born director Hans Steinbichler’s 2016 German-language feature The Diary of Anne Frank, in which, too, an unlikely assortment of people find themselves holed up together – though in rather more involuntary circumstances. Steinbichler’s is the latest cinematic version of the famous diary, kept by the Jewish teenager during the Nazi-ruled wartime years that she and her family lived hidden above a workshop. Unlike the deliberate newness inaugurated in The Commune, the Franks’ communal life in the annex strives to recreate their home. It is a forced exile into which they take as many possible accoutrements of their bourgeois life, from clothes and dinner sets to books and the writing instruments that make possible Anne’s startlingly frank record of emerging selfhood.

These things – the thingness of these things – help sustain something of the illusion of normalcy, but life in the commune produces its own effects. There is something about the inauguration of a collective domestic arrangement with people you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to live with that pushes buttons and expands boundaries. We are far from the free-spirited world of Vinterberg’s childhood memories, but here, too, the new freedoms and new proximities conjure new relationships – and alter old ones.

The communal life certainly allows for more openness than the traditional family unit, and yet in its difference, it can feel closed off from the world. Both the teenaged Freja in The Commune and the teenaged Anne develop an enhanced sense of privacy, not just because they are exploring their sexuality, but because they are beginning to see themselves as separate from their parents. The breakdown of the old family unit perhaps also enables each of the girls to see her parents separately, as individuals. Embracing the collective, it turns out, can be strangely individuating.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 June 2017.

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