Under the Tree

 

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Set on the outskirts of Reykjavik, this is a deliberately disconcerting black comedy.

   
Under the Tree
  

Although seen as somewhat controversial when it first appeared, Norman McLaren’s Neighbours is one of the few short films to have gained classic status. It was made in 1952, lasted all of eight minutes and used live action stop-motion to tell its tale. But, having stood the test of time, it can certainly be identified as a key progenitor of Iceland’s new feature film Under the Tree.

 

Neighbours was conceived as an anti-war parable and showed how a dispute over ownership of a flower growing on the border between two properties escalates into wholesale destruction. The behaviour of the two neighbours was presented as a warning, but their actions grew so far out of proportion that the tale also conveyed the absurdity in it. Exactly the same blend is present in Under the Tree, which portrays adjoining households at loggerheads. The film starts elsewhere in the apartment of Atli (Steinthór Hróar Steinthórsson) and Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jonsdóttir). They have a young daughter but their marriage is not going well and, when Agnes catches Atli seeking satisfaction by viewing images that he took of himself having sex with another woman, she throws him out.

 

At this point Atli moves back into the house of his parents, Baldvin (Sigurdur Sigurjónsson) and Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), and it is they who are at daggers drawn with their neighbours, Konrád (Thorsteinn Bachmann) and his second and younger wife, Eybjörg (Selma Björnsdóttir). It is Atli’s mother who leads the way by hating Eybjörg so much that she adamantly opposes even the trimming of the tree on their property which the other couple would like to see cut down because it casts an unwelcome shadow over their sundeck porch. Thus it is Inga’s attitude that generates tensions that will build wildly with two innocent animals, a cat and a dog, destined to play key roles in the steps that will eventually lead to more than one death.

 

Under the Tree is the third feature film to be directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson and as co-author and director he handles it with great assurance. The absurdist element present is such that the film plays as black comedy, yet the tale draws sufficiently on believable hostility to render this less a fantasy than a portrayal of extreme behaviour rooted in attitudes that we can recognise. Well-acted (not least by Edda Björgvinsdóttir as the appalling Inga), this film finds Sigurdsson balancing these elements with skill, although it would seem that some viewers have not seen the humour in it while others have continued to laugh beyond the point when that seems the right response. Since landscape shots would hardly have been in keeping, this is one Icelandic film in which scenic wonders play no part and some may be disappointed by that and it is also the case that arguably the compact nature of Neighbours enabled McLaren to achieve a greater impact. But, if Under the Tree is hardly likely to become a classic, it is nevertheless an effective piece that knows both how to entertain and how to dismay.

 

Original title: Undir trénu.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Steinthór Hróar Steinthórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurdur Sigurjónsson, Thorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Björnsdóttir, Lára Jóhanna Jonsdóttir, Dóra Jóhannsdóttir, Sigridur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving.

 

Dir Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, Pro Grímar Jónsson, Sindri Páll Kjartansson and Thor Snær Sigurjónsson, Screenplay Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson and Huldar Breidfjörd, from the latter’s story, Ph Monika Lenczewska, Pro Des Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson, Ed Kristján Loŏmfjörd, Music Daniel Bjarnason, Costumes Margét Einarsdóttir.

  
Netop Films/Profile Pictures/Madants/One Two Films-Eureka Entertainment.
89 mins. Iceland/Denmark/Poland/Germany/Norway. 2017. Rel: 10 August 2018. Cert. 15.