19 November 2021
Do you, like eighty per cent of Americans, consider your pet “part of the family?” If so you you’ll either entirely relate to Lamb’s doomed protagonists, or leave the cinema a little, well, sheepish.
Vladimar Johannsson’s feature debut tells the story, initially, of Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar; (Bjorn Hylnur Haraldsson) a couple grieving an insurmountable loss and whose marriage hangs by a thread in a disconnected existence on a remote sheep farm. The isolation and monotony of the farmers’ life is captured in what feels painfully almost like real-time; the first third of the film is dominated by lingering sequences of feeding, tagging, and herding sheep, and precious little dialogue takes place. But when the unlikely survival of a newborn lamb triggers Maria’s frustrated mothering instinct, the natural order is disrupted with brutal consequences.
Lamb has been widely billed as a horror film. But while Johannsson’s debut features its fair share of gore (much of which, revealingly, takes place in birthing scenes) and is pervaded by a sense of dread, the film’s wilder elements transcend genre conventions.
We experience this in Lamb’s moral and emotional ambiguity; the viewer is never quite of who is the monster and who the victim in this twisted equation. The character design of Ada-lamb for example (the name of which takes on a discomforting significance in part III) simultaneously evokes both beauty and grotesqueness, while her parents (both human and hoofed) show that and that as with the mountainous Icelandic landscape, comfort can at any moment turn to cruelty.
Lamb is also slyly funny. Johannasson has fun with the film’s magical realist element as he imagines the absurdity with which an outsider would comprehend Maria, Ingvar and Ada’s strange lifestyle when Ingvar’s brother Petur drops in unexpectedly. (In the words of the creator; “Sometimes it’s strange you have to laugh.”) The audience’s surrogate (to a piont), Petur aptly summarises the situation when he hisses “What the fuck is this?”
“Happiness,” Ingvar simply replies.
Lamb’s greatest achievement is in making us believe in this happiness. High concept stories often fail to ground themselves in recognisable human emotion, but Johnannsson avoids this trap due to Rapace and Haralsdsson’s rawly empathetic performances. Maria, and an initially reluctant Ingvar, hold, nurse, and play with the little lamb with tangible joy and tenderness. Despite the characters’ mistakes, they genuinely love Ada. But this love comes at a cost, and Maria shows the dark side of motherhood in the lengths she will go to keep her baby.
Johanssonn has indicated that originally Ada was to feature far more in the film, and even talk. At the last moment the filmmakers pulled back and trimmed the eponymous lamb’s screen time to leave a certain amount of mystique.
It’s interesting then that this reviewer found scenes in which little Ada confronts her identity as the most heart-wrenching, in a film filled with devastation. Lamb’s combination of CGI and practical effects somehow embodies a real little soul, as she gazes into mirrors and pictures of sheep. Despite what Maria and Ingvar want, will she ever really be human? And with all of the pain, confusion and human weakness that follows, would she ever want to be?
Strange, disconcerting, and at times darkly funny; Lamb’s deliciously uncomfortable meditation on what it means to be human deserves every one of its accolades. You’ll never look at a roast dinner the same way again.
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