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’.

Sightseers (UK 2012)

Our beautiful North of England!

Our beautiful North of England!

Every year, it seems, UK critics and commentators pick out a small independent film and promote it. I do this myself to some extent, but I don’t have any influence. Sightseers has been picked out by Wendy Mitchell, Editor of Screen International, and by Sight & Sound, whose editor put the film on the cover of the November issue. It has even turned up on the ‘Top Films of the Year’ list of a Belgian critic polled by Cineuropa and the film has won prizes at three European festivals as well as a BIFA (British Independent Film Award) for its screenplay. Clearly there is something here that critics are responding to. I found the film to be an interesting exercise that somehow didn’t come together. The main disappointment for me was that it is billed as a black comedy but I didn’t find it funny. I do like traditional gothic horror films and Sightseers promises to be a modern gothic horror but doesn’t fulfil the promise.

Sightseers is an interesting mix – a road movie, a romance, a satire, a crime film and a comedy. The two central characters, Tina and Chris (played by the two principal writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram), are 30-something social misfits. We don’t learn about Chris’s background until later on but he has acquired a caravan and a car big enough to haul it around the North of England. Tina is a dog counsellor and knitter who lives with her mother and she eagerly accepts Chris’s offer to become his muse as he travels seeking inspiration for a book he is planning.

The film is presented in ‘Scope and it does show some of the beauty of the Peak District, the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. I’ve seen it compared to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which traversed some of the same roads, but whereas Winterbottom and his cinematographer seemed to capture more than just pretty images, I didn’t feel the same about Sightseers. To be fair, this isn’t a film about landscapes. The scenery is meant to supply useful plot devices and to represent a certain kind of Englishness associated with the National Trust and the perhaps more middle-class tourists who visit the National Parks. On the other hand, Chris and Tina also despise other types of tourists or even locals. They are basically misanthropes who develop a taste for dispatching people who cross them/offend them in some way. A “ginger-faced man and an angry woman”, as the news reports describe them, make an unlikely pair of serial killers.

Sightseers is directed by Ben Wheatley who has already developed a strong reputation with critics for films he has written himself, Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). His background is partly in television (like Oram and Lowe) and that background in a certain kind of contemporary TV comedy maybe the reason why Sightseers is not to my taste. I’m too old to watch BBC3 and I have avoided programmes like Little Britain or The League of Gentleman. I have enjoyed comedy horror films where the violence seems to have a point but in this case it just seems cruel – which isn’t to say that Chris and Tina aren’t an intriguing couple and several of the romance elements are explored in novel ways. Wheatley is an astute filmmaker and he has a real future ahead of him. The interview listed below is well worth a listen.

The film’s critical status meant a wider distribution than most films with this kind of budget and genre mix – through the European ‘major’ StudioCanal. However, despite the generally very good reviews, audiences have not been large and I doubt that the film has gone much beyond the core horror fanbase and those who follow the more cultish end of the British independent film scene. Sightseers opened very strongly on 92 screens but then tailed off quite dramatically by its third weekend, suggesting that word of mouth was not so good. Nevertheless it has managed over £500,000 so far which is acceptable for a UK cinema release and bodes well for a subsequent life on DVD and online – where I expect it to attract repeat viewings by fans.

Interview with Ben Wheatley.

UK trailer (WARNING: Spoilers)