Under the Tree is the third feature film from Icelandic writer and director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson. Within it, frigid relationships brood and bubble into acts of aggression and violence with a typical Nordic minimalism and irony.
The film follows Baldwin and Inga’s spat with their neighbours, which starts with the younger neighbouring couple complaining that their tree casts a shadow over their backyard, and then proceeds to violently spiral out of control. This is told in tandem with the break-up of Baldwin and Inga’s only living son, Atli, after his wife catches him watching an old sex tape of himself and an ex-partner one evening. Two stories of conflict across two generations are told simultaneously, exhibiting passive aggression and over-the-fence sort of battles.
Under the Tree is kept to a tight run-time, clocking in at less than an hour and a half, it feels neither rushed or over-stuffed. The film sees hostility, absurdities, and micro-aggressions increasingly accumulate until all sorts of social ugliness erupts; involving pets, chainsaws, and staple guns.
Whilst Under the Tree may seem on paper like the perfect black comedy revenge romp, that it is not. In reality, it plays like a black comedy in which all comedic beats and jokes are played straight, the result of this being that a very serious family drama emerges with individually very flawed characters. It feels like a very real adaption of characters from a Roy Andersson film. The Nordic coldness that replaces what should be comedic is best summarised through the film’s opening scene. In this opening, Atli hears his neighbours having sex, gets up and starts to watch an old sex tape of himself and an ex-lover. His wife catches him and he promptly closes the laptop and stammers out an excuse, the kicker is that the video is still playing on the desktop screen behind him, unknown to him. This could be funny, but his wife Agnes breaks down in tears that are so genuine and moving, audiences cannot help but feel bereft for his betrayal of her too. The final stinger comes when their daughter, who we did not know existed, walks into the room. It’s difficult to laugh at this destruction of the nuclear family.
Sigurðsson and his cinematographer Monika Lenczewska, perhaps best known for City of Lies and Radiohead’s I Promise music video of last year, shoot largely with a washed out colour palette and in over cast weather. This bleakness works perfectly with the uncluttered and minimalist compositions and interior design of the films settings, focusing on displaying the sleekness of Nordic design and fashion, rather than stuffing each shot with artefacts. Whilst this could lead to the film feeling rather half finished, it actually exaggerates the feelings of bleakness and absurdity that the film explores. Definitely worth a watch.