At first, I was under the misapprehension that Under the Tree was a follow-up to Rams (2015), the Icelandic film that became a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. I was wrong. Under the Tree is a different writing and directing team. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson wrote and directed the film with Huldar Breiðfjörð as co-writer.
But Iceland is a country with a small population and a small but vibrant film industry and the same lead actor, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, appears in this film and in Rams, the production context is very similar and the genre of ‘black comedy’ is exactly the same. I was bowled over by Rams which I found quite moving as well as tragic and darkly comic. I feel a little more distanced from Under the Tree and that is probably because the story idea, though ostensibly the same (warring neighbours), is presented in a more familiar setting/context.
Two couples, Konrad and Eybjorg and the older Baldvin and Inga, are neighbours in a pair of houses in an undefined location, presumably on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Though the houses seem quite ‘modern’, Baldvin and Inga have a large tree in the front garden that casts a shadow over their neighbour’s patio. Eybjorg is a younger woman determined to sunbathe and frustrated by the shadow. This is the basis of the conflict and what ensues is similar in many ways to the classic stop-motion animation Neighbours (Canada 1952) by Norman McLaren. Neighbours was clearly a political allegory about escalation and military conflict. I think it’s more difficult to pinpoint the purpose of Under the Tree, apart from its generic ‘pleasures’.
The film also has a secondary plot in which Atli, Baldvin and Inga’s son, offends his wife and is thrown out of their apartment (in a communal apartment block). He has to return home and begin legal action to gain access to his daughter. There is a clear parallel here between the conflict over the tree and the battle over the child. It seems in some ways that the young couple (whose behaviour I at first thought was wild and unreasonable) go about resolving their conflict in a ‘modern’ way. The parents’ behaviour is almost primitive. I should also mention that Atli had a brother who died and Inga hasn’t properly recovered from this. There might be a suggestion of a kind of psychological thriller or even horror film in Inga’s actions. ‘Missing’ children seem to be a recurring feature of the (limited) number of Icelandic narratives I’ve read.
I’ve probably learned most about aspects of Icelandic culture from the crime novels of Arnaldur Indriðason and the adaptation of one of his novels Mýrin (Jar City 2006). The missing/lost children/siblings is a feature of more than one of these novels, as is the importance of choral singing. In Under the Tree there are two sequences of the male voice choir which includes Baldvin in its ranks. The exquisite sound of this choir offers a stark contrast to the ugliness of the relationships in and between the two households – all three sets of couples are at odds with each other. The choir also symbolises just what can be achieved through ‘harmony’ in a very direct way.
As well as the sound design which includes the choral singing, the cinematography in this film is also expressive. Polish cinematographer Monika Lenczewska manages to capture the peculiar light of an Icelandic summer with a subdued palette of colours. Somehow, her visual representation of the two houses and the streets of Reykjavik seems to conjure up an environment as bleak, in different ways, as the snowstorms of Rams. A picnic on the grass by the IKEA car park sums it up really. Under the Tree is a skilled production all round and I recommend it. But do be aware it is a very dark ‘comedy’.