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Undir trénu

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Within the first few minutes of Under the Tree, we’ve already seen all the basic components that will make up the remainder of the film: a domestic conflict, quickly shifting points of view, hints of violence, an illicit act caught on camera. It’s a stark and effective move by director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, conveying the deliberate confidence of a chef laying out all his ingredients before firing up the stove.

The first half of the film centers around Atli, whose indiscretions see him kicked out of his house by his furious wife. Forced to stay with his parents in the Reykjavik suburbs, his futile attempts at reconciliation grow increasingly desperate, escalating from simple pleading to borderline stalking, and crossing further lines when he attempts to spend some unscheduled time with the couple’s young daughter.

His parents, meanwhile, have become embroiled in an increasingly hostile argument with their neighbors over the shadow cast by the titular tree in their backyard. Atli’s mother, haunted by the disappearance and presumed suicide of their other son, is perfectly willing to escalate the conflict with their neighbors further, while her husband and son, both weak-willed in her eyes, receive their due share of her vitriol as well. It’s to Sigurðsson’s credit that both Atli and his mother, problematic as they may be with their borderline-abusive behavior, remain somewhat sympathetic as the film shifts into darker and darker territory.

Throughout its taut 88-minute runtime, the film plays up various Nordic-thriller tropes: in addition to the deliberate pacing of the intro (which continues throughout), the tense, minimal soundtrack keeps the tension high, and numerous scenes feature pans and zooms almost too slow to be noticeable. The discomfort generated throughout is brilliantly double-edged, ratcheting up both the dramatic and comedic tension, daring the audience to root for its characters even as their behavior reaches new lows.

Broader Nordic and Scandinavian clichés receive a darkly comedic treatment as well: the closest thing to an escape to nature in the film is a picnic in an empty field shadowed by a massive Ikea, while gnome statuettes, the epitome of bucolic, northern-European kitsch, become sinister tools in the escalating battle between neighbors. These moments serve as much-needed deflations of the heaviness often associated with Scandinavian dramas, suggesting that it could simply be so much wallowing. More broadly, the film’s biggest satirical target could be Iceland itself: in a country so low on both people and vegetation, a relentlessly escalating conflict over a solitary tree is perhaps the ultimate example of self-inflicted misery.

John Peck

Credits

Original title: Undir trénu
Island/Dänemark/Polen/Deutschland 2017, 89 min
Genre: Comedy
Director: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson
Author: Huldar Breiðfjörð, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
DOP: Monika Lenczewska
Montage: Kristján Loðmfjörð
Distributor: farbfilm Verleih
Cast: Steinþór Hróar, Steinþórsson Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Lara Johanna Jónsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson
FSK: 12
Release: 16.05.2019

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