Under the TreeVenice Film Festival 2017
Portrayals of suburban grudges, tension, and dullness have a surprisingly lively cinematic history. Films such as American Beauty, Happiness, and Lantana find fertile territory in the occasional unease and air of anxiety that can offset suburban stillness. Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson attempts to mine similar ground in Under the Tree, a hit on the festival circuit, that explores the clash between two families as tensions escalate over an overgrown tree in one’s backyard. However, the absurdist humour and unlikeable protagonists of this jet-black comedy overwhelm its best intentions.
Casting us in medias res, as Atli (Steinthor Hroar Steinthorsson) and Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir) slide silently into bed, presumably post-argument, we follow the dissolution of their relationship before the credits even roll – she catches him watching homemade porn with an ex-girlfriend, and kicks him out of the house, whereupon he seeks refuge at his parents’ home. He gradually attempts to win back his wife as his parents delve into increasingly tense arguments with their neighbours about their shadow-casting tree. Tyres are slashed, pets are threatened, insults are cast – with the micro aggressions of both parents and child veering into more straightforward domestic disturbance territory.
If the plot sounds better suited to television, that’s because it is. The comedy is pitch black, but there’s little to laugh at in the childish, petulant way all the characters behave. Certain lines and scenes play out in such a way that cause the viewer to stop and consider “does anyone actually talk like this?”. Similarly, there’s little subtext – other than the suggestion that the mundane intensity of suburbia can drive us all a little mad and make otherwise rational people behave irrationally. With little conviction, however, that these are otherwise rational people, we are with a carousel of cynical, borderline sociopathic characters. Someone like Michael Haneke is a master at using his off-kilter aesthetic to view character’s miniature aggressions in a comedic way. Here, the gradual devolution plays out predictably and unpleasantly, as we can sketch how this comedy of manners will escalate, with little joy to be found along the route.
Similarly, Sigurðsson tries to place a lot of import on the tree of the title. Swirling pans around it, light fanning through it, attempts to imbue it with some mythic status – or at least a metaphor – are all made, but there’s neither humour nor meaning to be found in such shots. This is reflective of the film as a whole – it simply bites off more than it can chew. Divorce, missing children, apartment living, mental health and sex are all examined, all accompanied by the thumping, discordant xylophone score. One amusing scene around the audible sex lives of one of the building residents suggests the sort of satire the movie is aiming for – it’s a pity it doesn’t hit such marks as incisively or frequently as it should. Look instead to winning features like Force Majeure that conjure the same questions of familial dissolve, loyalty and tension with more nuance and humour.
Under the Tree does not have a UK release date yet.
Watch the trailer for Under the Tree here: