In a country where trees don’t grow, it’s understandable to want to protect the one you’ve got. However, these prized possessions can also be a place of conflict, as is explored in the Icelandic black comedy Under the Tree [+], which takes petty arguments to the extreme, with devasting yet hilarious consequences. Director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson delighted audiences with his breakthrough Paris of the North, which almost seems tame in its levels of dark comedy compared to his latest film. After having premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in September, Under the Tree is currently enjoying a successful festival run globally. Something of a combination between the discussions of masculinity in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure and the black comedy of Anders Thomas Jensen’s Men and Chicken, Under the Tree is both a universal topic and very Scandinavian in its deadpan delivery.
It’s true that Iceland is a country without trees. Many stories on the internet confirm his statement. One popular tale is that when the Vikings settled on Iceland, they cut down all the trees (with practically the whole country being a forest) to use as building material and firewood, with their grazing sheep preventing any trees from growing. In addition to that, a country famous for volcanos has had to suffer through many eruptions, the lava destroying nearby trees and the ground preventing any from growing back. However, with the influx of tourists and Icelanders now enjoying a more contemporary lifestyle, trees are making their comeback, and leafy suburbs can be found throughout the capital Reykjavík and other villages. Still, owning your own tree seems to be something of a luxury, and as such as been the focus of many court disputes in the country.
Sigurðsson stated in a Q&A session at the Nordic Film Days that he based the script on actual disputes that have taken place in Iceland over trees. A famous example involves a mixed martial arts fighter, Gunnar Nelson, who was reported to police for cutting down a neighbour’s tree without their permission. Nelson claimed the tree had spread into his property and caused damage to the sewer pipes. He had contacted the neighbours offering to remove the tree and foot the bill himself, but after months of not hearing a response he just went ahead and did it. This is just one of many cases of disputes over trees in Iceland, and it does seem to be a fitting backdrop for a contemporary comedy, though the dispute in Under the Tree is not as understandable.
The tree at the centre of Under the Tree is a beautiful maple tree (interestingly, Sigurðsson stated that the tree is actually CGI, proving to be the most difficult ‘character’ in the film), sitting in the garden of Inga and Baldvin. However, the tree casts a shadow into the garden of Konrad and Eybjorg, and during the summer, in which Eybjorg wants nothing more than to sunbake in the rare Icelandic sun, the tree proves to be a hindrance. Sure, she could just move her deckchair a few feet to the right and avoid the shadow of the tree, but that would be too easy. After an initial reasonable discussion over the tree between the neighbours, things go south and the dispute soon escalates. Verbal implications and slandering grow into mind-games and then into passive-aggressive combat before taking a dark tone.
However, the tree dispute isn’t the main story of Under the Tree. Rather, at the focus is Atli, a young father who has just been kicked out of his apartment by his girlfriend after she caught him enjoying old footage of him and an ex-girlfriend. He takes refuge in his parent’s home while fighting to see his young daughter. While he is a complex character, too much of a man-child to be conniving yet never apologising to his girlfriend, a lot of sympathy is found in Atli and he also serves as a voice for the audience, constantly telling his parents how ridiculous the feud is.
What makes Under the Tree so much fun to watch is how character driven the film is. Exploring complicated character dynamics, Sigurðsson pays extra attention to creating complex characters exhibiting good and bad traits that make you both cheer for them and despise them. The fact that many of the actors are professional comedians adds to the feel of each individual. Every character is interesting, but Inga shines above all. On the surface, she appears to be a typical older woman perhaps a little too bored with how life ended up. She is undoubtedly the driving force in the feud, not hesitating to take it to the extreme and eliciting a unique creativity to her attacks that shows she’s just a little bit insane. However, behind the façade is a seriously depressed woman. Her other son, Uggi, mysteriously disappeared a year beforehand, many assuming it to be a suicide. While Atli and Baldvin are grieving as though Uggi did in fact die, Inga holds onto the hope that her son will return home, even setting the table for him for his birthday dinner. To make things worse, her son cannot be declared dead until the body is found, and that just fuels her hope that he will return.
Baldvin, on the other hand, appears to be the sanest and most sympathetic, thanks to Sigurdur Sigurjonsson’s (who we’ll recognise from Rams, sans beard) priceless expressions, (see above) combining disbelief and perplexity as he tries to save his son’s marriage while subtly contemplating his own.
On the other side of the fence, Konrad and Eybjorg are facing their own struggle. Konrad appears to be a middle-aged man who recently divorced his wife and married the younger, prettier Eybjorg. Eybjorg takes great pride her appearance, showing off on her bicycle every day with her German Shephard following loyally. However, behind closed doors Eybjorg is struggling to become pregnant, wanting nothing more to become a mother before it’s too late. So, the loss of a child on one side of the fence and the attempts to conceive one on the other, fuel the scorching fire. The stress of their personal lives is taken out on the trivial feud, and it proves fatal.
Embracing these clichéd but also unique personalities allows Sigurðsson to create a highly successful social satire. The writer-director uses deadpan and black comedy mixed with thriller to address intimate subjects, namely social taboo. Under the Tree is a universal story, twisting the ‘love thy neighbour’ message, but its delivery and narrative is purely Nordic, a combination audiences are sure to enjoy.