Films about suburban warfare between snarling, territorial neighbors have been a popular subgenre since Buster Keaton’s day, but it comes as a surprise that Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson packs so much emotional depth into Under the Tree (Undir trenu), his accomplished third feature. Each character resonates as a problematic individual whose foolishness escalates first into drama, then tragedy. The film’s near-perfect calibration between family drama and black comedy recalls the director’s earlier features, Paris of the North and Either Way (remade in the U.S. as Prince Avalanche), but this is the one in which Sigurdsson really projects a distinctive voice.
Easy to watch, funny and thoughtful, it should find a European art house launch in Venice Horizons and collect many more festival requests.
Everyday black humor seesaws with drama.
In a long-simmering feud between two couples who reside in identical cube houses in the suburbs, lines are drawn and tempers flare from the very first scene. A tree on the front lawn of Inga and Baldvin’s house is casting a rather large shadow on that of their neighbors, Konrad and Eybjorg. Despite repeated requests from the latter, the elderly Baldvin has not gotten around to trimming the tree, and his witchy wife, Inga (Edda Bjorgvinsdottir), has no intention of doing the neighbors any favors. Her catty-to-obscene comments about Eybjorg (Selma Bjornsdottir), Konrad’s athletic, young second wife, always get a laugh.
Very casually we learn that behind Inga’s bitterness lies a recent tragedy: Their oldest son has disappeared and is believed (for reasons never adequately explained) to have killed himself. Not only the retired couple, but also their surviving son, Atli (Steinthor Hroar Steinthorsson), are struggling to come to terms with this disaster.
Atli does not immediately excite sympathy. He seems like a bumbling ne’er-do-well who could potentially turn violent. His wife, Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir), has kicked him out of the house, and he is now stalking her and doing ill-advised things like taking their daughter out of kindergarten for an afternoon of hanging out. What he has done to Agnes is only revealed later at an outrageous condo meeting, and it redraws our picture of him considerably.
Meanwhile, the tree feud continues. Inga and Baldvin have a cat; Konrad and Eybjorg have a dog. When the cat goes missing, the dog soon follows in one of the film’s wildest, cruelest and most unforgettable gags.
Inga is very much in her element taking revenge, though her antics smack of mental illness. At first, her mild-mannered, sensible husband resists being drawn into her obsessions, but when his tires are slashed, he gets Atli to sleep in a tent on the lawn and keep watch, leading to an unexpected climax that has the audience literally torn between laughter and tears.
The cast is excellent, with each actor contributing just the right amount of confusion to the emotional mess. Even the two older, relatively levelheaded men — Sigurdur Sigurjonsson as Baldvin and Thorsteinn Bachmann as the remarried Konrad —lose it when faced with the opportunity of a chainsaw and a pitchfork.
There’s little of the famous Reykjavik landscape in this Iceland-Denmark-Poland co-production, and the story honestly could be set anywhere from Austria to California. Cinematographer Monika Lenczewska casts a melancholy light on human folly, which grows into a dark gloom by the end of the tale. Underlining the high intentions is Daniel Bjarnason’s serious, subtle score fluidly punctuated with Bach and Rachmaninoff.
Production companies: Netop Films in association with Profile Pictures, Madants and One Two Films
Cast: Steinthor Hroar Steinthorsson, Edda Bjorgvinsdottir, Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, Lara Johanna Jonsdottir, Thorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Bjornsdottir, Dora Johannsdottir, Sigridur Sigurpalsdottir
Director: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson
Screenwriters: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, Huldar Breidfjord
Producers: Grimar Jonsson, Caroline Schluter, Klaudia Smieja, Jamila Wenske
Director of photography: Monika Lenczewska
Production designer: Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson
Costume designer: Margret Einarsdottir
Editor: Kristjan Lodmfjord
Music: Daniel Bjarnason
Casting director: Vigfus Pormar Gunnarsson
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Sales: New Europe Film Sales