Directed by: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson | 89 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Björnsdóttir, Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, Dóra Jóhannsdóttir, Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving
Escalating subcutaneous tensions and (family) dramas can usually easily be left to Scandinavian filmmakers, who have a flawless feeling for dissecting family situations and appearances. This is no different in the Icelandic drama ‘Under the Tree’. In the film by director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, we see how three families gradually become disrupted by paranoia, selfishness and obstinacy.
The film opens with images of a sleepy marriage. Atli and Agnes are clearly no longer happy in their marriage, which takes a serious blow when Agnes catches her husband secretly watching a sexual film starring himself. Atli is immediately thrown out of the house and is forced to move in with his parents, who are struggling with a completely different kind of problem: a lingering neighbor’s argument about their tree that, according to the neighbors, hangs too far over the fence so that the neighbor cannot lie in the sun. It seems like a fine set-up for a new episode of ‘De Rijdende Rechter’, but fortunately director Sigurðsson has many more assets than just the neighbors quarrel. The tree mainly serves a symbolic purpose in ‘Under the Tree:
In the beginning, ‘Under the Tree’ has some difficulty in finding a clear focus. For a long time it remains a somewhat unbalanced drama that is at times too light-hearted to really get through to the viewer. This is mainly because almost all the characters in the first part of the movie are quite annoying. Especially the role of Atli’s mother is very difficult to embrace at first, until she gets a bit more emotional depth from the director. It is also striking that the men in this film are largely inactive quitters, who have no answer for the dominant role of their women. The women in ‘Under the Tree’ are driven by jealousy, envy and pent-up anger. This makes one of the last confrontations in the film between two men seem rather crazy, although that is refreshing in a time when men in films still too often have to be tough macho. In ‘Under the Tree’ it’s just ‘suckers’ who get caught up in a conflict that their wives have sparked.
The film works especially well during the chafing moments, with one of the highlights being a house meeting in Atli and Agnes’s flat, where a rowdy couple is confronted with their sexual adventures and Atli and Agnes fight their feud in public. With playful ease, Sigurðsson slowly scrapes the edges of the civilized exterior, just think of the façade that actually is the neatly raked suburb in which the neighbors quarrel takes place. In that respect ‘Under the Tree’ fits in the trend of predecessors such as ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘American Beauty’ who previously showed masterfully what can happen ‘behind the front door’ for misery and what drastic consequences this can have.
Ultimately, ‘Under the Tree’ offers a very cynical view of humanity and love. The depressing ending makes a lot of sense, especially since it is somewhat out of tune with the rest of the film. In the first half the film ripples on a bit and the film switches tones (too) often. Sigurðsson then ends the film as a pitch black tragedy, with which he wants to show what the consequences can be of paranoia and unresolved trauma. You can’t really happily leave the cinema after seeing ‘Under the Tree’. The ending is pretty dark, and the characters remain largely unsympathetic, irrational figures. Still, the film remains captivating from start to finish, as Sigurðsson cleverly manages to disrupt with troubled families slowly crumbling, fueled by that one tree.