Þorsteinn Bachmann, Black comedy, Drama, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, Iceland, Neighbours, Review, Selma Björnsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Unhappy marriage
Original title: Undir Trénu
D: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson / 89m
Cast: Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Björnsdóttir, Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, Dóra Jóhannsdóttir, Sigrídur Sigurpálsdóttir Scheving
Inga (Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurjónsson) are an elderly couple who live next door to Konrad (Bachmann) and his second wife, Eybjorg (Björnsdóttir). The two couples get on for the most part, but there is a large tree in Inga and Baldvin’s garden that blocks out much of the light when Eybjorg uses their sun deck. This bone of contention has been raised once or twice, but Inga is determined that the tree will remain as it is. Meanwhile, her son Atli (Steinþórsson), has been kicked out by his wife, Agnes (Jónsdóttir), and has come back home while he tries to put things right between them. When all the tires of Baldvin’s car are slashed, and then Inga’s cat goes missing, these events trigger a further string of occurrences that threaten to – and then do – spiral out of control. Atli goes about reconnecting with Agnes in ways that serve only to antagonise her further, and which also have an effect on their young daughter, Asa (Scheving), and relations between the two sets of neighbours deteriorates to the point where tragedy and violence ensues…
In this pitch black comedy from Iceland, the opening scenes set the tone for the rest of the movie, with Atli caught masturbating to a sex tape he made with someone he knew before meeting Agnes. As awkward moments go, it’s pretty awkward, and there are many more to enjoy as the movie progresses, with each character either the victim of something horrible, or being the catalyst or instigator of something horrible. What’s clever though about the set up by writer/director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson is the way in which he escalates matters between the two sets of neighbours, but without showing us if any of them really are responsible for, say, four slashed tyres, or the disappearance of a cat. This ambiguity hints at the possibility of a third party being involved, but again, Sigurðsson offers no clues as to this third party’s identity, and so the cycle of revenge plays out with a high degree of angry absurdity, as each couple blames the other for their woes. Tit for tat gives way to targeted, violent (even criminal) behaviour, until tragedy is compounded by further tragedy, and the original disagreement seems petty and inconsequential. Sigurðsson acknowledges what we all know to be true: all’s fair in hate and war.
Sigurðsson also isn’t afraid to make some of his characters unlikeable, or in Inga’s case, downright horrid. With a caustic tongue and a mind that’s been warped by grief – her other son, Uggi, has disappeared and is presumed dead, though no body has been found – Inga is played with angry gusto by Björgvinsdöttir, and it’s she who provides the movie with its most awful moment as the disappearance of her cat causes her to do something so terrible you can’t stop thinking about it after the movie has ended. That it also sets up one of the funniest moments in the movie is a tribute to the care with which Sigurðsson has crafted his narrative. But though the humour is as dark as it can be, this is ultimately a movie about loss, and the things people will do to avoid dealing with it. Inga hasn’t dealt with the loss of her son (Baldvin states at one point that it perhaps would have been better if Uggi had died in front of her), while Atli is struggling to come to terms with losing his family through his own stupidity, and Eybjorg is scared of losing altogether the chance of becoming a mother. Driven by these fears, and the grief that comes with them, each character fights their own corner, but without the understanding that their feelings aren’t exclusive, or that by concentrating only on themselves, that the tragedy stalking all of them will happen all the sooner.
Rating: 8/10 – with terrific performances from all concerned, and a grim, relentless intensity to the material, Under the Tree is impressively detailed when it comes to the various ways in which people rush to ensure that revenge can be eagerly justified – if only to themselves; unsparing and cruel in places, but fiercely intelligent and with a small measure of optimism to cling on to, it’s a movie that doesn’t pander to its audience, or offer them an easy way out from all the suffering of its characters.