Under the Tree by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson is a mordant suburban black comedy that escalates an everyday situation into shocking Icelandic horror.
Throwing Shadeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Trees and sunshine are both in short supply in Iceland, where those traditional Icelandic sweaters are worn even in its short-lived summer. So a dispute between middle-class neighbours over an ancient tree that casts a shadow on the sunbathing patio next door can become a serious matter if entrenched positions are taken up and both sides refuse to budge.
Under the Tree is an unusual comedy in that none of the characters are likeable. Atli (comedian Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is thrown out by his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) for watching porn. Inga’s inflexible attitude sets off a custody battle over their little daughter. Ludicrously, and also sadly, Atli’s attempt to spend a day with her becomes a picnic in the Ikea car park and the police being called.
Atli goes back to stay with his parents, unforgiving Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and mild-mannered Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson, one of the brothers from Rams). Inga is embittered because of something in the past to do with Atli’s dead brother. They’re in the middle of a gritted-teeth dispute with their neighbours over the majestic tree in their garden, which Konrad’s (Þorsteinn Bachmann) new trophy wife Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) says interferes with her sunbathing.
As Atli’s marital and custody troubles escalate, so does the feud between these neighbours – growing in acrimony from from tree to gnomes to cats to dogs and eventually to both couples themselves, with increasingly shocking and horrific results.
The tone of Sigurðsson’s debut feature is detached and satirical, allowing the absurdities to speak for themselves. This adds to a lack of engagement with the obsessive characters who seem to have no redeeming features. Though the humour is as dark as can be, the colour palette is restrained and soothing, houses are decorated in sensible northern soft greys and silvers and light woods with no discordant colours or patterns. Small details are inserted in close-up – a worm fills the screen as a hole is being dug in the garden, for instance. The overall effect is disorientating and unsettling, and the music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, gives a sense of encroaching dread in what would otherwise be a very ordinary bourgeois setting. The film may raise a wry smile as emotions inexorably get out of proportion but the overriding feeling is of unease and despair. As the thin Icelandic veneer of politeness and rationality is riven to reveal tragedy beneath, it wipes that smile away.
Under the Tree is released on 10 August 2018 in the UK.