A couple living in isolation raises a cute, grotesque creature like their own child. The premise of LAMB sounds like an arthouse horror film at first glance, but it’s a touching, sensitive analogy. More about this in our review.
OT: Lamb (ISL/POL/SWE 2021)
The couple Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), who live far away from the nearest town, raise sheep. When she makes an unusual discovery in the stable during the Christmas season, she believes she has received a gift from heaven: a newborn sheep has a human stature, and some parts of her body are also human. So she raises the strange creature like her own, healthy child, which the couple has wanted for a long time. But the bizarre family blessing does not go unquestioned…
It’s a bit shameful that even in circles of film-loving people who try to maintain an international perspective, it’s always US distributors who help certain films gain attention. In the 1990s, for example, this was primarily Miramax’s thing: films like “Life is Beautiful”, “Cinema Paradiso” or the Czech drama “Kolya” with “Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella” leading actress Libuše Šafránková only gained popularity outside of the Festival circuit and their home market received a notable response when the studio secured the US rights. Since then, Miramax has changed hands several times and no longer holds the market power it once had. A24 now fills a similar place in the film world: The studio behind smart horror like “Midsommar” and “The Lighthouse” as well as morbid comedies like “Under the Silver Lake” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” enjoys great respect among indie films -Gourmets. And with “Lamb” it proved a few months ago that it can help even films with which it has little to do to gain respect:
A couple, a “child” and a mystery…
The creation of “Lamb” caused manageable waves. A24 then released the US trailer for the film, to which the studio solely holds the North American distribution rights. And suddenly there was talk of the exciting-looking, clever, strange “new A24 film” not only in the USA, but also internationally among the targeted, indie-friendly clientele. As much as this observation may highlight the blind spots that many of us still have in our perception of films, Icelandic film executives are unlikely to be upset that their film has gained in profile thanks to US distribution – the main thing is that that he catches the eye. And in a strange way, that’s quite a lead-in to “Lamb”, as it’s a film in which a grieving couple decides to take a detour to find family happiness. Director Valdimar Jóhannsson stages the script written by him and Björk collaborator Sjón in long, static camera shots that get so close to the characters that you can almost read their every thought from their foreheads, lips and eyelashes. And at other times, the camera directed by Eli Arenson maintains a respectful distance from the characters who are grieving, brooding or bittersweetly enjoying their strange parental happiness. As if the camera were a silent observer, a friendly visitor who withdraws in these intimate moments. Jóhannsson switches so naturally between closeness and distance to Maria and Ingvar that he very effectively promotes an emotional involvement in the well-being of this couple: through the closely followed moments of clear emotions, we feel familiar with them both. So familiar, in fact, that we easily presume to be able to interpret their thoughts and feelings even when they become unclear due to complex situations and spatial distance.
“Valdimar Jóhannsson switches so naturally between closeness and distance to Maria and Ingvar that he very effectively promotes an emotional involvement in the well-being of this couple: through the closely followed moments of clear emotions, we feel familiar with the two of them.”
This subliminally generated “I have already grasped the situation”-Blending is an important element in “Lamb”. At the beginning of the film, Maria and Ingvar practice denial: they pretend to each other that they are above a stroke of fate that has previously occurred. But it becomes clear early on that they are far from over the child loss that occurred before the events shown in “Lamb” and are channeling their grief into raising a lamb like their own child. But emotional pain cannot be ignored for any length of time – this is shown not only by the leaden sorrow that resonates in Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason’s playing, which gives even light, playful moments of happiness an aftertaste. Holes are also poked into the couple’s self-denial on a plot level, for example through the visit of Ingvar’s brother Pétur. Björn Hlynur Haraldsson impresses in this role with a skillful balancing act between speechlessness, self-entertaining sarcasm with which he makes light of the situation of his brother and sister-in-law, and a friendliness that is used for the sake of family peace when he gets involved in the illusion .
Cameraman Eli Arenson presents impressive visual power in “Lamb”.
But Guðnason and Rapace are even stronger, playing “Lamb” like a straightforward, sensitively observed marital drama about a couple who tries to recover after the loss of a child, but keeps stumbling because husband and wife are in love can hardly support each other. Because they struggle so much with their own emotional baggage that they only have the strength to dedicate themselves to their loved ones in rare, bright moments. And in exactly these bright moments you would rather just be cheerful instead of reminding yourself by supporting each other that you have reason to want to support yourself… It is a sensitive, nuanced examination of repression, grief and the attempt to to look forward. The fact that Guðnason and Rapace play their roles so lived-in and natural means that occasional brittle humor arises when this real-life authenticity clashes with the sight of the little lamb. But it is precisely this brittle joke that ultimately makes “Lamb” seem more real on an emotional level than many stringent relationship dramas. Because while some filmmakers insist on telling tragic relationship stories as leadenly as possible, Jóhannsson understands the complicated reality that even deeply depressed people always experience a moment of lightness. This is the reason why those around you are led to make a superficial judgment that everything will probably be half as wild – which in turn keeps the emotional vicious circle going…
“It is a sensitive, nuanced examination of repression, grief and the attempt to look forward. The fact that Guðnason and Rapace play their roles so lived-in and natural means that occasional brittle humor arises when this real-life authenticity clashes with the sight of the little lamb.”
“Lamb” illustrates this beautifully and in a creative way. Added to this are the sheep, which are staged in such an expressive way that you could almost humanize the normal animals, and the cinematic naturalness with which the cuddly, fluffy human-sheep creature Ada is brought to the screen. Whenever disaster comes stomping into this deceptive idyll, or the idyll unmistakably reveals itself to be loneliness, it hurts all the more.
Conclusion: What at first glance may seem like a parody of A24 art horror is, thanks to the lifelike dialogues and sensitive performances, a sensitive drama about loss, processing and repression.
“Lamb” can be seen in USA cinemas from January 6, 2021.