Under the Tree (Undir trénu, Iceland-Poland-Denmark 2017)

Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) with the ‘rude gnomes’ during the initial, low level skirmishes

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.

Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) whose tan is threatened by the tree’s shadow

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.

Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is the only one not singing in the choir – still shocked by the escalation of the conflict

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.

Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) with a chainsaw. He wouldn’t, would he?

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’.

Rams (Hrútar, Iceland-Denmark-Norway-Poland 2015)

rams_poster

These are my (slightly edited) notes distributed for a screening of the film in 2016.

Rams was a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. It was promoted as a dark comedy about a pair of brothers who have fallen out though they live close by each other on two separate farms. What brings them back into contact is an outbreak of disease among the local sheep and their farmer’s reluctance to follow government guidelines on disease control. For some audiences the film is dark enough to be a tragedy, but either way it seems to have captured the imagination of UK audiences.

Iceland has one of the highest per capita cinema attendance rates in the world. Whatever the reasons for this (long, cold nights with little to do?), it does mean a vibrant local film culture and a recent history of notable films that have won prizes at international festivals. For example, Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) won the New European Cinema Prize at Bradford International Film Festival in 2012. Although a winner around the world, no-one was prepared to go on and release the film in the UK. The lead in Volcano was played by Theodór Júlíusson, now one of the two brothers in Rams. We should be grateful that Soda Pictures gambled and put Rams into distribution. Perhaps it was the leavening effect of humour which allowed Rams into distribution? The other recent Icelandic film to get a UK release, Of Horses and Men (2013) is also a ‘rural comedy’.

Like most Icelandic film productions (and TV serials like Trapped, on BBC4 early in 2016), Rams is a co-production involving Danish as well as Icelandic public funds. The budget for the film was around €1.5 million (about the same as the average for low budget UK films). Around 10-12 films are made in Iceland each year. The links to Denmark are ‘post-colonial’ in Iceland. They are necessary for such a small country, though after 1945 Iceland began to turn more to the US and the UK (the relationship with the UK has sometimes been similarly tense – note the aside about disease imported with British livestock in the film). Polish involvement in Rams perhaps reflects the fact that Poles are the biggest migrant group in the country. Iceland’s population is only 330,000 – less than Bradford and less than half the population of Leeds. Nearly two-thirds of the population live in the ‘capital region’ of ‘Greater Reykjavik’. Emotional dramas like Rams can be quite intimate. Population density outside the capital region is very low and people know their neighbours well. Family disputes stand out.

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) checks the fence between the two properties – the houses are shown in the background

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) checks the fence between the two properties – the houses are shown in the background

Director’s statement

Rams was written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, a young man still in his 30s who has made an affecting film about two brothers in their sixties. Hákonarson began his career working on documentaries and he also has experience of working with sheep. An interview with him is available on the BFI Player series (free to watch): https://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-rams-qa-with-director-grimur-hakonarson-2016/

Hákonarson trained in Prague and in the interview he explains that his instinct is to show rather than ‘tell’ as a Hollywood film might do. This means that as an editor, he always tries to cut the dialogue and that as a documentarist he is spontaneous – sometimes shooting scenes not in the script because they might offer something in the edit. For example, a scene in which one of the brothers, Gummi, shovels snow from outside his door was not in the script but now has meaning in the final edit.

Many of the incidents in the film that seem absurd or slightly surreal are in fact based on real incidents, including the trip to hospital and sheep in the basement. The central story is inspired by a true story the filmmaker learned from his father and some of the extras who appear in the film are local farmers. The film does confirm the old adage that the more ‘real’ a filmmaker wishes a film to appear, the more artifice is required. In this case that means a long period of preparation, including a search for amenable sheep (most sheep would simply run away from the filmmakers and Iceland has nearly 500,000 sheep), finding the two houses close together etc. Though the region of Iceland depicted in the film (in the North West) does have heavy snowfall in winter, it was still necessary to spend money on artificial snow (and CGI snow) for some scenes. Two sheep died ‘naturally’ during the filming and through use of CGI the two dead sheep could be used to show a flock being culled.

Tradition and family

Iceland is a ‘young country’ in terms of population profile with a median age of 35 and a high birth rate by European standards. But it is also a culture in which traditions are important as well as close family ties. The director has stated that he sees the ending of the film as symbolic.

References

Statistics on Iceland from: https://issuu.com/hagstofa/docs/icelandinfigures2015

BIFF 2012 #10: Volcano (Eldfjall, Iceland/Denmark 2011)

Hannes watches as the boat given to him by his father is lifted from the water with the hole in its hull clear for all to see – a metaphor for Hannes’ state of mind?

Volcano is a recognisable Nordic drama, harrowing in parts and occasionally uplifting – never sentimental, always intelligent. As several trade reviewers jokingly put it, this isn’t a ‘date movie’ – but for older audiences it will ring very true or perhaps start some re-evaluations of family relationships.

At the beginning of the film Hannes is experiencing the pain of his last day at work, aged 67 and after 37 years as a school caretaker and before that as a fisherman living in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. The 1973 volcanic eruption of Eldfell forced him to move the family to the mainland. Retirement does not come easy and it’s clear that for some time Hannes has become estranged from his wife and family. On a topical note, his daughter Telma has just been promoted as a loans manager in a bank – to the disgust of her father. His son Ari is divorced, but usually has his small son in tow. Most long-suffering is Anna, the matriarch of the family. After nearly sinking in his old fishing boat, Hannes begins to soften and he and Anna have a rapprochement – which is almost immediately halted by tragedy when Anna has a very severe stroke.

What follows is a deeply moving study of how Hannes comes to terms with what life has given him. Written and directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson as his first feature after several shorts, the film is a remarkable achievement for a young man in his thirties. Part of a Danish film initiative the film was shown in Cannes in 2011 and has won awards around the world. I wish I’d seen more Icelandic films because the handfull I have seen do have several recurring elements such as choral singing, windswept landscapes and of course, the sea. Although the film is essentially social-realist, there are many symbolic references and at first I assumed that the title refers to the two devastating events that change Hannes’ life so dramatically. At the end of the film he will find himself back in ‘the islands’ as he calls them – perhaps wondering if he should have returned earlier. I’m also wondering if the couple’s favourite ‘halibut soup’ means more than just a tasty dish. Googling it suggests that it is one of the oldest Icelandic dishes – here’s a recipe. In an interview available here, the director says that the ‘volcano’ is actually Hannes himself, a seemingly cold and grey man with his emotions in tumult within about to erupt. Certainly he is a classically masculine working man in his dealings with others. The performances in the film are universally good and especially the lead couple, Theodór Júlíusson and Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir.

Volcano is in competition at BIFF and alongside Arrugas it makes a strong case for films which deal with issues for older audiences, although there is no reason why they shouldn’t appeal to younger audiences as well. Can we have a UK distributor for this excellent film please?

Trailer with English subs:

Myrin – Jar City (Iceland/Germany/Denmark 2006)

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Inspector Erlendur in Jar City

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Inspector Erlendur in Jar City

I don’t normally do this, but I watched the film of Jar City just days after finishing reading the book. This was preparation for an introduction to the film as an example of literary adaptation – something I’ve blogged on before.

A little background. Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason has produced a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Erlendur. The books have been extremely popular in Iceland and the first to be translated into English in 2004 carried the Icelandic title Myrin. In the UK it was published as Jar City. Ironically, the filmic adaptation is officially called Myrin – Jar City on the title-card for the BBFC certificate, but the novel has been re-published as Tainted Blood. Go figure, as the Americans say. I think ‘Myrin’ means ‘marsh’ in Icelandic and here it refers to an area in Reykjavik where a building houses a large number of medical specimens in in glass jars. Thus ‘Jar City’.

As an adaptation, the film is interesting in terms of the decisions taken over narrative structure, characters and presentation. I don’t want to spoil either the film or the book, so suffice to say, the film drops a sub-plot of no real narrative importance except to flesh out the story about Erlendur and his daughter Eva Lind and also re-orders events a little. The result in my view makes the film less of a procedural investigation and possibly a more familiar form of filmic narrative. I’m fine with this. I enjoy the slower pace of the procedural, but I recognise that it may not be something for a mainstream audience. It also goes with what I think is quite a clever attempt to make Erlendur a slightly more conventional investigator. (The novels portray a much more dishevelled, older man who forgets to eat properly and rarely has clean clothes – Ingvar (above) is quite striking without the heavy glasses and has a natty line in cardigans and parkas.) However, this ‘softening’ is a matter of degree. The filmmakers have kept Erlendur’s junior partners much as described in the books (the two I’ve read so far). Sigurdur Oli is suitably Americanised and bumptious, while his female colleague Elinborg is happily an ‘ordinary’ and quite sensible woman. I confess that I had no real idea what she would look like, so the joke’s on me if I expected someone more glamorous.

Of course, outside Iceland this won’t be treated as a mainstream film, except perhaps in other ‘Nordic’ countries. Iceland itself has perhaps the highest cinema attendance per head of any country in Europe – perhaps in the world – so perhaps I shouldn’t expect anything other than a ciné literate film from Baltasar Kormakur, the director of 101 Reykjavik, the only other Icelandic film I think I’ve seen. That seemed quite hedonistic by comparison. In style terms, it’s noticeable that Jar City uses a CinemaScope frame, filling it with quite a few long shots of bare landscape and modern housing/offices, sometimes aerial shots and mostly cast in bluish/greenish light. I’ve not been to Iceland, but I could feel the cold and the wet. I could also smell it since this story rather overdoses on the olfactory. The other style feature is the use of music, at times quite obtrusive and sometimes using choral voices. I fear that to those outside Iceland, the music probably simply conveys a sense of Nordic solemnity – I couldn’t find out much about it, not even from the minimal press notes. This was one part of the film I didn’t understand. The opening and closing images feature close-ups of men in uniform singing outdoors as if in a choir on parade. The closing shots reveal that Erlendur is amongst them – so presumably it is a police choir or some form of ceremony at which the police are on parade. I have got some ideas, but I don’t want to spoil the film. If anyone can give me a clue that isn’t a spoiler, I’d be grateful. It’s an interesting element since the other Indridason book I’ve read focuses on a child who is a choral superstar, so it clearly has resonance for the local audience.

Back to the adaptation question. The film is, I think, more conventional in the way it presents the criminal activity that Erlendur investigates. There is little time to consider the serious ethical and sociological/political issues that the story raises. In the book, because Erlendur and the team struggle to get leads, it actually became more gripping. On the other hand, the realism of the film gives a much better sense of what Iceland might actually be like and what being a police officer in a country of only 320,000 must be like. As a vegetarian who lives in a sheep-rearing region, I’m still flashing back to the sight of Erlendur tucking into a boiled sheep’s head that he buys from a drive-thru. There is also a funny anti-vegetarian joke, but at least its at the expense of Sigurdur Oli.

As far as I can see, the collection of samples in Jar City and the associated research is a national issue since Iceland’s small population – sometimes considered the most developed society in the world – is the first to be properly classifiable as a genetic population. This raises quite a few potential questions. The other important theme is the contrast between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Iceland. The director has said that this is what attracted him to the character of Erlendur, who embodies many of the values of ‘old’ Iceland. His daughter represents ‘new’ Iceland – which does seem to have problems.

I’d recommend the film and the book.

(Apologies that I haven’t managed to represent Icelandic names properly – I haven’t managed to sort out my keyboard!)