Under the Tree
Under the Tree (Undir trénu), Iceland’s foreign language entry at the Oscars earlier this year, takes the building absurdity of farce and drains it of almost all the comedy. What is left is an immersive tale with a pitch-black sense of humour which builds inexorably towards an inevitable conclusion, inviting the audience to laugh if they want to.
The film has two intersecting narratives. The first centres on a conflict over a tree which sits in the garden of Inga and Baldvin, casting shade on the garden of their neighbours, Konrad and Eybjorg. Initial discussions between the couples are cordial – if pointed – but as jealousy and trauma manifest, resentment bubbles and eventually boils over.
Meanwhile Atil, the son of the former pair, is separating from his wife Agnes thanks to being caught masturbating over a porn video he made with a former lover. Kicked out of the house and locked in a battle for custody of his daughter, he moves back in with his parents only to find himself embroiled in the dispute and his mother’s own problems.
Atli and Agnes’ narrative feels slightly forced, with insufficient time dedicated to exploring their past relationship to really understand the dynamic at play. However, the dispute over the tree is the core of the feature, gaining its own inescapable momentum (for audience and characters alike) thanks to Hafsteinn Ginnar Sigurdsson’s detached direction, Monika Lenczewska’s cinematography – which uses a drained palette to obscure and incorporate subtle shifts in tone – and Daníel Bjarnason’s sparingly insistent score.
Without this driving force, the audience might stop to question how well-drawn these suburbanites are and how sufficient their motives. With it, the movie becomes a cautionary fable – albeit a violent and visceral one – that builds to its final climax. This is not a tightly plotted psychological thriller with which Scandinavian film and TV has become synonymous. It is not about this tree, this break-up or even these people. Instead, it serves as a metaphor for the inability of humans to co-exist with each other, and for the need to prevent the impending destruction of the natural world – perhaps a little too neatly symbolised by the tree. The comedy is too sparse to sit at the heart of the film, but in terms of satirical absurdism, one set-piece is majestic.
Under The Tree is a gripping feature, especially as it moves relentlessly to its close. Don’t go in expecting belly-laughs, or even traditional Scandi noir themes and plot – instead get lost in this microcosmic story of humanity gone wrong.
Under the Tree is released in select cinemas on 10th August 2018.
Watch the trailer for Under the Tree here: