Lamb (Iceland/Sweden, 2021)October 08, 2021
Lamb, the feature debut of Valdimar Johannsson, is the latest export from Iceland to indicate that movies from that corner of the world may not be the most palatable to mainstream American audiences. Johannson has had plenty of experience with major productions, albeit on the technical side (he was an electrician for five episodes of Game of Thrones filmed in Iceland), but Lamb represents his first opportunity behind the camera. The result, for those who can overcome the substantial “suspension of disbelief” hurdle, is engrossing and unsettling. As ridiculous as the premise might sound, the film is not easily forgotten. It lingers.
Mythology and folklore are replete with half-human/half-animal hybrids, from mermaids to centaurs to the Minotaur, so accepting the appearance of one in Lamb isn’t unreasonable. What makes it different in this case, however, is that the reality crafted by Johannsson is so bluntly ordinary that the fantastical elements can feel jarringly out-of-place. In order to appreciate the main course served up by the director in Lamb, one has to buy into the premise. This cinematic entree lacks the kind of impervious story that can survive a logical deconstruction.
The movie opens with a prologue depicting the first-person prowling of some creature (we hear its heavy breathing) as it roams across the plains of Iceland, frightening horses and sheep. Its ultimate goal is unclear and the story (which is presented in three chapters) soon moves past it to focus on the human protagonists. We never quite forget that unseen presence, however, and it’s one the building blocks that Johannsson uses to establish an atmosphere of quiet dread. Even when narrative elements seem to be taking the characters to a better place, the tone disabuses us of expecting too much in the way of uplifting developments.
Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Guonason) are a middle-aged couple who raise sheep in the wilds of their island country. Childless and without neighbors, they have only their animals and each other to keep them company and the frigid temperature of their marriage hints at a past tragedy. They endure, perhaps lonelier together than they would be by themselves. That’s when fate intervenes. One of their sheep gives birth to “a gift.” The lamb is extraordinary – a half-human/half-animal creature with the head of a sheep and the body of a little girl. Maria and Ingvar “adopt” the baby and call her Ada (with Maria finding a permanent solution to the problem of the child’s natural mother). The addition of someone new to the household brings the couple closer to “happiness” until the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) upsets the dynamic. A former pop star, Petur is a perpetually broke wanderer whose past history with Maria fuels a tense new dynamic. At the same time, he’s clearly creeped out by Ada and decides that his brother and sister-in-law might be better off without their “daughter.”
With only three human characters, there’s not a lot of dialogue. Johannsson relies on what the camera captures to develop Maria and Ingvar, especially in the early-going. Long takes and lingering shots are the director’s bread-and-butter. He loves to capture the fog as it crests the mountains and slides into the valley where the sheep and their caretakers live. Lamb is very much a visual experience, relying on tone to buttress narrative weaknesses.
Although the three actors are solid, the title creature too often arrests the camera’s attention and that’s not always a good thing. Although the combination of practical special effects and CGI that give life to the hybrid sheep/human are impressive in their own right, there’s something absurd about Ada, especially when she is dressed in children’s clothing. She almost seems like something that has wandered out of a Monty Python movie; this can make it a challenge to accept her. There’s every indication that Johannsson is aware of the issue, which is why he plays everything straight. There’s no winking at the viewer.
The ending is shocking but it has something to say about the karmic law of consequences. One could argue that there are allegorical aspects but they are murky at best. Lamb is at its most successful when seen as a slice of mythology or a dark, warped modern-day fable. Although the title creature gives the film its notoriety, Ada is little more than a catalyst in the characters’ relationships and a means by which Johannsson can explore loneliness and isolation in a land that can be as harsh and stoic as the people inhabiting it.
Lamb (Iceland/Sweden, 2021)
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snaer Guonason, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson
Screenplay: Sjon and Valdimar Johannsson
Cinematography: Eli Arenson
Music: Porarinn Guonason
U.S. Distributor: A24
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