Under the Tree
Released in cinemas by Eureka Pictures, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurđsson’s Icelandic black comedy Under the Tree begins with an inspired contemporary take on an old joke. Atli, played by Steinthór Hróar Steinthórsson, is watching a sex tape of himself with his ex-girlfriend when his wife walks in. Panicked, he closes the laptop – only for the video to reappear on the computer monitor the machine is connected to. It’s par for the course in Sigurđsson’s film, where any attempt to rectify a situation will always end up making it worse.
Cast out by his wife, Atli ends up staying with his parents, Inga and Baldvin, only to find they have a problem of their own. The tree in Inga and Baldvin’s garden is starting to interfere with their neighbours’ property, and they refuse to cut it back. While Atli goes to ever more desperate measures to repair his marriage, neighbours Eybjörg and Konrád begin a war of low-level incivility against Inga and Baldvin, a feud that quickly spirals out of control.
Viewers in the UK rarely get a chance to see Icelandic cinema, and when we do it generally comes in two varieties. There is the quirky, rural strain typified by Benedikt Erlingsson’s arthouse sleeper hit Of Horses and Men, and then there are the dry black comedies. Under the Tree is definitely going for the latter, bringing to mind hip, distinctive early ’00s films like Noi the Albino and 101 Reykjavík (the latter an anomalous early work by action-adventure specialist Baltasar Kormákur, currently the country’s most internationally successful director). It also feels a bit early-’00s, an example of the kind of suburban satire that flourished on the American indie circuit after American Beauty won Best Picture. By about 2006 audiences had seen a lifetime’s worth of bitter resentments and dark secrets festering in the suburbs; is there any value to going back to the theme at this point?
The answer is always “Yes, if it’s done well enough”. Sigurđsson and his cinematographer Monika Lanczewska make the film’s world look believably claustrophobic and gloomy without overstating the case, and the film has effective performances across the board. Selma Björnsdóttir, as Eybjörg, gives every scene she’s in a little more comic energy, and Steinthórsson pitches his pathetic sad-sack of a protagonist at just the right level to earn a little sympathy. As the film goes on and the feud becomes more savage, though, the cast encounter script flaws even they can’t paper over.
Pointless to go into a black comedy and complain about tastelessness, but late in act two Edna Björgvinsdóttir’s Inga does something so unsympathetic there’s no coming back from it, particularly since there hasn’t really been anything to set up this level of cruelty existing within her. Sigurđsson supplies a motivation, but it has one huge, staringly obvious hole, one which audiences will figure out long before the final shot clears it up. This is the signal for Under the Tree to go full-on grand guginol, replacing its early icy comedy of manners with gory fights, property destruction and quite a lot of other business that feels like it’s come from a broader, less interesting movie than the tart, clever first act.
One of the things that’s wasted here is the central metaphor; the tree, spreading its roots, entangling the two homes, working its way under their foundations. Yet all of the buried secrets come in the Atli and Agnes plotline, the one which least involves the tree. The lack of thematic cohesion makes it hard for Under the Tree to reach a satisfying conclusion, let alone one that lives up to the promise it begins with.