Under the Tree | Undir Trenu (2018) **** Mubi

January 11th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Hafstein Gunnar Sigurdsson; Cast.: Steinthor Steinporsson, Edda Bjorgvinsdottir, Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, Lara Johanna Jonsdottir, Pornsteinn Bachmann, Selma Bjornsdottir; Iceland//Denmark/Poland/Germany 2017, 89 min.

In this urban satire, Hafstein Gunnar Sigurdsson (Rams) pulls off a comedy feat, making us laugh at our own small mindedness. A great ensemble showcases this tour-de-force of middle-class nimby-ism with much the same dark humour as Rams.

It all starts with male embarrassment: husband Atli (Steinporsson) is surprised by his wife Agnes (Jonsdottir) in the early morning, masturbating to pornographic images of himself on his laptop  – or so he claims. Agnes throws him out, not realising that his next place of residence back home with his parents – will soon be a war zone. Meanwhile Atli’s brother is heading for suicide, and his mother Inga (Bjorgvinsdottir) – suffering from depression – has chosen the next-door neighbours Konrad (Bachman) and Eybjorg (Bjornsdottir) as the butt of her deflected self-hatred. Konrad and Eyborg, not unreasonably, want the huge tree on his parents’ property trimmed, at it blocks the sun from their front porch. While Inga’s husband Baldvin (Sigurjonsson) is ready to compromise, Inga herself does not want to sacrifice a leaf – she goes on the warpath blowing a gasket of pent up emotion. So Atli moves into a tent in the garden, his parent’s Persian cat disappears without a trace and Inga is convinced the neighbours have abducted the puss.

Since said neighbours own a proud German shepherd, Inga takes matters in her own hands: impersonating Eybjorg opts for extreme measures with the animal. And when husband Baldvin criticises her for being over the top, she tells him “at least they know where he is, unlike me” – referring to the missing body of her son. Then Konrad, in the middle of the night, takes his saw to the tree in question, setting in motion a bloody Shakespearean tragedy.

Violence simmers under the suface: Atli cannot stand the thought of Agnes getting custody of their four-year old daughter Asa: who he abducts from Kindergarten. later smashing his wife’s mobile and threatening violence. Unlike his mother, Atli is too phlegmatic to escalate the conflict, listening to his father’s solution for compromise  – the apple never falls far from this tree either.

The film never takes itself too seriously: at a tenants’ meeting in Agnes’ flat, she complains about him being there, blurting out at the meeting “Atli masturbates to his girlfriend’s pictures. That’s not right, is it?”, to which the male half of a couple, whose nightly lovemaking keeps the neighbourhood awake, responds with a curt “why not, it’s okay”.

Under the Tree is chock-full of witty one-liners as hilarious as they are absurd: but underneath there lurks a nimbyism and an intolerance of anyone not sharing their own values (while also claiming to be ‘liberal’). By the end, Sigurdsson, fed up with  humans, leaves the last word to the cat. AS

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