Under The Tree [Undir trénu]

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdson
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Huldar Breiðfjörð (story and screenplay), Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson (screenplay)
Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson
Screening Date:
  • 2 Oct 2018
  • Categories:
    Comedy, Drama

    Surburban warfare involving two families fighting over a tree between their houses. Another unusual but most entertaining Icelandic film. 

    Film Notes

    Lest the people of Iceland be getting complacent about their ranking as the fourth happiest country in the world, here’s an unsettling film sniffing at something rotten at the back of the fridge – behind the paid-for higher education, hang-up-free sex and tastefully minimal interiors.

    The film’s director, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, has said his inspiration for Under the Tree was Iceland’s high rate of “neighbour rage”: over-the-fence feuds between ordinary respectable people. Blame the Viking DNA. He skilfully constructs his film as part-thriller, part-intelligent relationship drama, topped with a juicy dollop of savage black comedy.

    It begins with young mother Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) walking in on her partner Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) watching a sex tape on his laptop of himself with another woman. When she kicks him out, Atli skulks back to mum and dad in the suburbs. His parents are locked in a dispute with neighbours over a tree in their garden blocking sunlight on to next door’s patio. When his mum Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) refuses to trim the tree, the battle lines are drawn.

    The two stories play out in parallel. Agnes ghosts Atli, changing the locks and refusing him access to their daughter. At his parents’ house things get nasty: tyres slashed, a dog disappears and some unspeakable business happens in the garage with a nail gun.

    It is not so much a criticism as an observation to say that, until minutes before the end, Under the Tree is meticulously balanced and measured. Sigurðsson is no misanthrope and his humane message – that everyone is muddling along as best they can – makes all the feuding and bile easier to stomach. Some may prefer a little more bite. And there is enough here to prompt a little Nordic envy, too: beautiful mid-century kitchen cabinets and an absurdly good-looking blond male nursery worker wearing a homespun Fair Isle jumper, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Sarah Lund.

    Cath Clarke, The Guardian, 10th August 2018

    It has the escalating, claustrophobic structure of the darkest farce, but humor doesn’t pile up in “Under the Tree” so much as it bleeds out. In the course of Icelandic writer-director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s memorably mordant third feature, savage black comedy passes almost imperceptibly into stunned, visceral tragedy — like a laugh turning in the throat and coming out as a choke. Charting an initially familiar battle of across-the-fence attrition between bad neighbors in polite surroundings, Sigurdsson gradually takes petty bourgeois tensions to alien, gasp-worthy extremes; what the film occasionally lacks in human finesse, it makes up for in sheer anything-goes resolve. The bleakness of its blackness might not portend a major crossover hit, but on the strength of both its universality and its singular Scandi irony, “Under the Tree” should spread its branches into international arthouses.

    Columbia graduate Sigurdsson’s 2011 debut feature “Either Way” wasn’t widely released beyond the festival circuit, but wound up being comfortably remade by David Gordon Green as “Prince Avalanche” — and it’s not hard to see the director’s latest enjoying similar treatment, given how smoothly its sins-of-suburbia narrative could transfer to a middle-American context. Which is not to say “Under the Tree” wants for cultural or geographical particularity, beginning with the dove-gray northern light that dominates Monika Lenczewska’s deliberately muted widescreen lensing: With a wry eye for trivial detail, Sigurdsson fills in a boxy, tidy, perennially overcast world where even the outdoors seem indoors, and the parking lot of IKEA doubles for one desperate parent as an idyllic picnic spot.

    The parent in question is Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), an unremarkable thirtysomething husband and father thrown out on his ear by his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) after being caught wet-handed with an old girlfriend’s sex tape. Her calm, abrupt decision to cut him from her life and that of their young daughter sends Atli into a fevered spiral of stalking, though their messy, hostile separation is practically civil compared to the film’s other driving dispute, as Atli’s retired parents — into whose trim modern identikit house their son is forced to move — go to war with their younger, somewhat hipper neighbors Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir).

    Sigurdsson and co-writer Huldar Breiðfjörð’s Chablis-dry script deftly staggers conflict not just across domestic walls, but between them, with points of argument ranging from patently absurd to distinctly raw. Atli’s father Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson, quietly excellent) is mild-mannered to a point; his mother Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), however, has long dispensed with niceties even to her nearest and dearest, corroded as she is by mourning for an absent second son. Unhinged grief pulls her into arguments with anyone, with newish trophy wife Eybjorg her most persistent opponent — and the vast, venerable tree in Inga’s backyard their most regular bone of contention.

    Such towering natural features are rare in an area of manicured lawns and sharp-cornered patios, and the film and Inga alike treat the tree as an old-school emblem of tradition and security; to Eybjorg, however, it’s merely a large, unwanted shadow on her year-round sunbathing space. Foliage isn’t the only thing under threat in an ugly clash between old and new worlds: Family members, material possessions and pets are all potentially caught in the crossfire, and Sigurdsson watches the extreme fallout with a dispassionate gaze that only amplifies the frequent, galling ugliness of the situation. Given the most flagrantly off-kilter character in the ensemble, Björgvinsdóttir takes much the same approach: Her deep-frozen performance skilfully hovers on the line between catatonic and psychotic, with alternately, sometimes simultaneously, hilarious and horrifying results.

    Talented, country-hopping cinematographer Lenczewska (whose diverse recent credits range from “Message to the King” to the new-wave Greek formality of “Park”) opts for about the most washed-out palette available in each frame — a half-erased palette that initially seems limiting but eventually connotes the pervasive extent of the characters’ respective emotional fugs. Daníel Bjarnason’s tart, brittle score makes clear from the outset that this is no cuddly dysfunctional family sitcom, though its yawning silences leave plenty of room for unsettled laughter.

    Guy Lodge, Variety, 18 September 2017.

    What you thought about Under The Tree [Undir trénu]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    14 (19%) 36 (48%) 9 (12%) 10 (13%) 6 (8%)
    Total Number of Responses: 75
    Film Score (0-5): 3.56

    Collated Response Comments

    159 members and guests came along on Tuesday with 75 responses both on the night and the web. A hit rate of 47%.

    This film really divided the audience. Whether you did or didn’t like it, there appears a common consensus that the film was very clever and powerful. Comments ranged from “Totally absorbing “, “Oddly enjoyable”, to “It was the most depressing film I have ever seen”.

    Many issues were tackled in the film and the central performance from Edda Björgvinsdóttir as Inga really drew you all in. The humour was very dark and the drama unfolded before our very eyes becoming ever more horrific in its content. One member wrote “Were it not for the language this could have come from the pen of Bennett, Leigh or Gervais, a world of petty concerns and social discomfort, private worlds packed too closely together behind endless opaque, reflective windows. A pressure cooker stoked by the one genuinely disturbed character resulting in a finale that Njal, Sigurd and the heroes of the sagas would have applauded. Considering the message of the film is simple and clear from the beginning; an appeal for empathy, understanding and a wider view of events, you are kept fairly close to the edge of your seat throughout. Excellent.”

    ” “Good fences make good neighbours” (Robert Frost). If only he hadn’t put in his ear pieces! Icelanders don’t use their garages for putting their cars in either”. “I wasn’t too happy about this uncomfortably believable story. Wonderfully acted but so deeply tragic. As a one-time community mediator, this can happen.”

    Several of you have made comments about the scheduling of films so far this year. “Glad we’re getting the social realism over early in the season, hopefully anyway! Nothing to cap the Icelandic blood feud tradition. But a well-made movie – acting and direction”. “Couldn’t really care enough to notice if it was a good film or not! Scheduling needs attention – three films on the trot, very negative emotionally. Not suggesting comedies – but some nice people would be good”. “Anyone joining the film club this year, must wonder what they have joined up for. Why were the last three films shown back to back?!” “Another cheery film! Can’t help but think that the criteria for choosing films has changed for the worse”. But we also have the following “Wasn't prepared for the violent and bloody ending to this otherwise quite mild and humorous film! A good choice and, up until the finale, a bit of light relief compared to the two previous season openers.” and “Brilliantly conceived, carefully crafted with all-too-familiar interlinking stories of dysfunctional families and building to a comic but still shocking finale. Very cleverly constructed film. Keep them coming GFS!” “Extraordinary, well made, I was right on the edge of my seat. So many issues brilliantly tackled – horror and humour”.

     There were a number of observations about the Short film: Photo Bomb with the “Short was excellent” x 2“. “More shorts please”. “At least the short had some humour in it”. “The Short, just brilliant”

    All other comments are on the website.

     “Not one redeeming feature”. “An overrated film with a fairly ridiculous plot around which to hitch some fairly extreme and unbelievable events”. “Very strange”. “Somewhat depraved and silly”. “What was the point of the film but to indicate Icelanders are strange folk?” “Boring and uninteresting content”. “A bit far-fetched!?” “Too obscure an ending but at least best fight sequence seen for years”. “Dark, disturbing, a bit predictable, not much humour”. “Confused tone – didn’t quite know which direction to go in”. “Didn’t like the graphic violence”. “Not the most uplifting film I’ve ever seen. I didn’t care about the characters (except Asa) to make this at all enjoyable”. “A bit too brutal for me”. “Yuk, a bit sick from start to finish!!” “Very dark…rather sad so couldn’t see the ‘comedy in it. Reminded me of a Modern Greek tragedy”

    “Great fun”. “Very entertaining”. “Absorbing with good plot escalation”. “Held attention well…excellent ending, well worth seeing”. “Though ending rather predictable, otherwise great dark humour”. “A very good black comedy”. ”Clever, but not enjoyable, marvellous acting”. “Greek tragedy! Good roles”

    “Well, we knew the cat would come back. Superb acting but held its intensity to the end”. “Great performances from everyone - a powerful argument for jaw-jaw, not war-war!” “Different. Music excellent”. “Not quite the Archers?!” “Unusual, clever film. Entertaining black comedy. It was only a matter of time before the cat appeared!”. “I just felt sorry for the dog”. “Very well filmed. The mother’s performance particularly fine”. “Funny, violent but engaging”. “Wonderful, gloomy Icelandic choir, black humour in bucketful’s!”

    “Black, predictable but good”. “Very enjoyable. The faces of the actors were excellent for the roles they played”. “Some really uncomfortable stuff with the father’s violence – but nice (albeit predictable) ending with the cat!” “Very entertaining”. ”Wonderful black comedy”. “Black and brilliant, could only have been Icelandic!” “Excellent acting, writing, directing, editing. Very believable and funny”. “Excellent story. But a bit brutal”. “Mad, but great mad”

    “That was awful, sad but very clever. I thought / hope the cat might come back”. “Very clever. Well-acted and tight script”. “Felt invested in the characters and story of a missing child – parents well drawn - but unsatisfied and unconvinced by predictable end and terrible ending”.

     “I do like a black comedy, and this was as dark as they come. What a skewed sense of humour these Icelanders have! I admire (and enjoyed) the clever evolution from low-level drama-comedy, to rather more sinister thriller, to the "horror-farce" ending, and subtly played throughout. The grieving mother was an absolutely horrendous character, but a great performance by the actor”. “Enjoyed is possibly not the right word. I liked the multi layered stories, the snowball effect of the actions leading, in one case, to a potential good conclusion whilst the other to disaster. I loved the residents' meeting, the black comedy moments and the performances in particular the father. Portents of the disaster to come were planted neatly through the film”. “A very sour film featuring the cat’s owner as unrelentingly evil----- 100 percent resistant to redemption through conciliation”.

    “Average. I’m being generous, having nothing against the Icelanders.  It didn’t strike me that anything new was being said, and I certainly didn’t find it funny.  It was just too ordinary, until it turned grisly, and most of the characterizations were oddly unconvincing.   For me, one memorable moment was when Inga is out in the street looking for the cat and the kids’ cycle by - simple and elegant.  But I’m afraid I’m not with most of the critics overall.  And I found the last few seconds (when the cat appears) spoiled the balance and was just too predictable“. 

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