In Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s third feature, ‘Undir Trénu,’ the shadow cast from the tree next door sparks a seething feud between neighbours which ultimately culminates in tragedy. Through its suburban setting and tight knit cast of intriguing and troubled characters, the film deftly juxtaposes raw emotion with the banalities of daily life to bleakly funny effect. Mooning garden gnomes, IKEA’s looming presence, well meaning school teachers and unpleasant resident meetings all provide fodder for laughs as the film moves—and finally lurches—towards its bizarre conclusion.
“Many people say that we Icelanders have a dark sense of humour, and I agree,” says producer Grímar Jónsson. “But I think the theme and the humour definitely travels. I get the feeling it takes people on different journeys.
“I’ve had this experience when showing the film to different audiences,” Grímar continues. “During a certain scene, we had a screening where people were literally crying, but a couple of days later in the same scene, a different audience were screaming with laughter.”
The two branches of the story are entwined by a shared undercurrent of unhappy family dynamics, established from the outset. The film opens with young father Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) being given the boot by his wife Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) after getting caught watching a homemade sex tape of himself and his former girlfriend. Atli doesn’t take this development well, and begins stalking Agnes in his car and pulling his daughter out of school during the day without permission, before resigning himself to moving back in with his parents.
But Atli’s parents are facing their own challenges. Retired couple Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) occupy one in a line of cookie cutter abodes in the suburbs with just one salient difference—a tree in the garden. A rare and precious commodity in Iceland, it becomes the centrepiece of an ongoing dispute between the couple and their neighbours, Konráð (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and his young second wife Eybjörg (Selma Björnsdóttir). Despite repeated requests from the neighbours, Baldvin has not pruned the tree that stretches over their shared fence, and Inga would prefer to keep it that way.
“There are several stories that come together,” says Grímar. “There’s not one main character in a classical dramatic structure. It was a challenge but that is also what was so intriguing. That was really exciting for me.”
Inga’s stone cold remarks about Eybjörg and her passion for fitness take passive aggressive snarkiness to new heights, drawing a laugh each time as Eybjörg looks on incredulously. For those in the know, the effect is heightened by actress Edda’s standing as one of Iceland’s premier comedians. “Some people only have to see her face to start laughing,” says Grímar. “So to see her as this mean bitch is pretty ironic.
“But this is more of the black comedy,” he continues. “It is something we deliberately thought of when casting for the film.” The same is true for Steinþór, who plays Atli. “He’s a superstar among teenagers as a comedian, so we were pretty bold in casting those two main characters.”
But Inga’s cutthroat quips speak to her sadness of losing a son, presumed dead, the details of which are left nebulous seemingly even to the characters themselves, as she veers between hilarity and just plain insanity. When poor Inga’s cat goes missing, the neighbours’ dog soon follows, and the dispute over a tree descends into all out war.
All the while, Monika Lenczewska’s unrelentingly grey cinematography gives the film an oppressive feel, which is compounded by the dispondency of Daniel Bjarnason’s sparsely used, sombre score.
Grímar notes that many neighbour disputes in Iceland transpire over trees, and feels that these tensions are something that most individuals can relate too. But he gives a warning to those currently embroiled in such spats when I ask him what he would like viewers to come away feeling at the end of the film. “Like, ‘What the fuck?’,” he says. “I think maybe that’s the feeling that I relate to, at least—like, was this all for nothing?”
‘Undir Trénu’ is now showing, with English subtitles, at Bió Paradís. Check bioparadis.is for showtimes.