Under the Tree Review
Under the Tree (2017) Film Review from the 74th Annual Venice International Film Festival, a movie directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, starring Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, Þorsteinn Bachmann, and Selma Björnsdóttir was a hyperbolic look at a dispute between neighbors that shifted from darkly comedic to sadistic in a way that left you gasping. This film was about so much more than trimming a tree.
In Under the Tree, older couple Baldvin (Sigurjónsson) and Inga (Björgvinsdóttir), and younger couple Konrad and Eybjorg viciously squabble because one’s tree casts a shadow over the other’s sundeck. The argument begins as something petty, but turns personal and bloody. Meanwhile, Baldvin and Inga’s son, Atli (Steinþórsson), moves back home while he struggles with separating from his wife, Agnes (Jónsdóttir) and their daughter.
The film opened with sex, lies, and video tape that effectively shocked us into consciousness in order to prepare for the seedy nature of the events that would transpire in the film. The film screamed pay attention! And we did, all the way to the dramatic end.
The whole dispute about the tree seemed to stem from the mutual resentment between two women – Inga and Eybjorg. They were slinging insults, and literally slinging crap, at each other over well manicured hedges on a quaint suburban street. At first, their husbands were simply trying to quell the tempest that was brewing, but they, too, ended up in an ego contest of their own. This was about more than a tree. This was about winning, and went along the harrowing ride in this contest of wills.
Every character in Sigurðsson‘s Under the Tree was interesting, but Björgvinsdóttir shined as the extremely complicated Inga, who was quick to retaliate even the most imagined attacks. Over the course of the film, we learned that Inga was deeply depressed, obstinate, and diabolically imaginative. We can cheer for her and bemoan her dark genius. Eybjorg (Björnsdóttir) seemed out of her depth, matching wits with a seasoned woman who was just a little bit out of her mind.
Eybjorg was somewhat of the typical aging beauty with a well-off husband, but she was not just going to allow a judgmental, jealous old lady disrespect her and interfere with her lifestyle. She tried to match Inga’s viciousness. She pushed her husband, Konrad (Bachmann), to his full vindictive potential as well.
Baldvin, however, was a quiet, strong, humble man whose arc was possibly the most surprising. We watched Baldvin twisting in the wind while his wife instigated a feud with the neighbors. We also watched him play marriage counselor, while subtly contemplating his own capacity to tolerate his wife.
Atli was a frustrating character. For him, one could feel all kinds of sympathy or none. On the one hand, he created his own misery, and never once said sorry. On the other, he was having the worst time convincing the women in his life to want him. He, also, seemed to be the only person in the film who was dealing with real life issues, not imagined, or emotional insults. So, what transpired with his character over the course of the film seemed equal parts pathetic, exasperating, and sobering.
Although the Under the Tree was sluggish at parts, there were some moments that rightly needed to breathe. With those moments, we felt the extent of the existing, and increasing, emotional instability this piece uncovered and explored. There were over arching themes at play. The real clash was between sentimentality and frivolity. There was a struggle between understanding and revenge, and understanding loses. Both terribly upsetting and terribly funny, Under the Tree was worth the watch.
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