Lamb talks about a strange thing happening to two people who steadfastly refuse to recognize it as anything other than normal. The tension between the absurd and the mundane is at the heart of this doodle from a movie, which is the directorial debut of Valdimar Jóhannsson, who wrote the screenplay with novelist and poet Sjón. The first time that the solid fabric of life on the Icelandic sheep farm where the film takes place is torn apart, husband and wife Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and Maria (Noomi Rapace, who is Swedish but has lived in Iceland when he was a child) stared at each other in shocked silence. And then, by raising an eyebrow, they integrate this addition into their life, without always exchanging a word. It was only when Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), the brother of Ingvar (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), showed up in the second act, after being ejected without glory from his life in the city in what appears to be a regular occurrence. , that someone dares to speak out loud that something unusual is happening. He quickly falls silent, Ingvar firmly telling him that “There is nothing we can talk about.”
If I feel like I’m shyly playing on what the incentive anomaly is, it’s only because the movie plays with her at the start as well. We’re given a series of teasing looks and half-obscured shots before we finally get a real look at a sight that, at this point, we’ve already formed a version in our heads. What came into the lives of Ingvar and Maria is a composite creature with a human body and a sheep’s head, born unceremoniously during an otherwise normal lambing season. The mother of the bastard, separated from her baby, bleats pitifully in front of the couple’s house, until Maria, plagued by disturbing dreams, drags the animal into a field and shoots it. She is determined to raise Ada, as she named the changeling after hers, and Ingvar seems more than willing to agree to the arrangement. “What is that?” Petur asks his brother laconically after his first meeting with Ada, and Ingvar simply replies, “Happiness”.
Lamb is not a horror movie. It feels more like a fairy tale, with all the obscurity most fairy tales have before being put away for contemporary consumption. The story follows a tradition of childless couples finding otherworldly infants that stretches from Kaguya-hime, the princess discovered in the forest by a bamboo cutter and his wife in Japanese folklore, to Superman, the alien found in a Kansas cornfield by the Kents in what I guess is American folklore. And like all these stories, the understanding that something will eventually happen calling for these miraculous offspring always hangs over the procedure – Ada came from somewhere, after all, beyond the belly of a slaughtered sheep. Yet for a long time Lamb talks about life on the farm. Jóhannsson has a sense of silence that goes beyond the concept of the film and undeniably tongue-in-cheek Scandinavian sensibility to inform how he conveys essential information about his characters.
This fact that the couple experienced grief while trying to conceive is conveyed, for example, by the way Ingvar takes out a cradle from the storage in the barn and sets it up for Ada. The lulls between idle conversation over breakfast suggest that Ingvar would be content with a future between them both on the farm, while Maria longs for more. The way Pétur touches Maria’s face when they’re alone makes it clear, before he says anything, that they’ve slept together before, and that he would like it to happen again, when she would rather move on. Lamb is skillful enough with these details that it’s frustrating that there is so little of it, that it feels like it could have been a great short instead of a disappointing feature, and that leans more and more heavily on its disturbing central creation. And Ada is certainly memorable, especially once she’s the size of a girl and wears practical sweaters. She understands speech, but at the same time the tiny sounds and expressions she makes are entirely animal, with the emptiness of a ruminant that is neither cute nor easy to anthropomorphize.
This is the point in Lamb – that even in this outpost of domestication and agriculture and the domination of mankind over the earth and the elements, nature is not so easily claimed. But that’s not a point the film seems to feel so passionately about. As the final act unfolds, Lamb approaches the idea that there is a price to be paid with shrugging suspicion rather than impending doom. It’s such a disappointing conclusion for a film with such a compelling start. You might start to wonder if the taciturn nature of the project is less of a stylistic choice than an indication that it just doesn’t have much to say.