Director: Valdimar Jóhannsson (Iceland, Poland, Sweden). Year of Release: 2021
Maria and Ingvar are childless and taciturn sheep farmers who live on the top of a hill, where it’s not obvious where the nearest person lives. They’re in Iceland, where the sun never sets. No, really, at least in the Summer, because of the island’s peculiar geography, the locals live in permanent sunlight. There is also a lot of beautiful scenery and not a lot else. Such a life could turn you a little crazy.
The first half hour of the film consists almost entirely of animal husbandry – the pair help ewes give birth, they tag the ears of newborn lambs, they lay down straw. There may well be something in the woodshed, or somewhere in the bleak surroundings, which is frightening the animals, but you’re not sure what. Then one of the newborn lambs causes them to react in shock, although we don’t initially see why.
It’s really difficult to talk about the film more without low-level plot spoilers, so if you want to see the film without any prejudgements, then go off and see it now before reading any further.
Ok, let’s proceed tentatively. Maria and Ingvar inherit a creature which has a child’s body but a lamb’s head. This sort of thing must be common in this part of Iceland, as they don’t bat an eyelid. They call their new child Ada, after their stillborn daughter, and start feeding it from a bottle. When the sheep’s mother starts to get too close, Maria kills it.
A third character arrives – Ingvar’s brother Pétur. Pétur asks the question that has been all of our lips: “What the fuck is going on?” (Ingvar’s answer is “Happiness”). He has also witnessed Maria killing the sheep mother and tries to blackmail her. The three drink together then dig out a video of Pétur’s past as an unsuccessful musician and encourage him to mime along (including the choreographed dance moves).
For the rest of the film, nothing much happens very often. The nuclear family carries on its normal business. When Maria decides that it is time for her brother-in-law to move on, she leaves Ingvar repairing the tractor drives Pétur to the bus. While they’re away something happens that you’re never going to guess. It didn’t really work for me, but if I tell you any more, it will ruin the surprize.
Do you read some film reviews and when they’re over you are entirely frustrated because even after you’ve read them (several times if necessary), you’re nowhere nearer understanding what the film is actually like? Well, I’m afraid that this is going to be one of those reviews, because this is one of those films which is batshit crazy, and works on its own terms or not at all.
I normally hate this sort of film, which often use way too much CGI and seem to have been made just for the self-satisfaction of the writer or director. While I completely approve of directors’ right to make whichever film they like, they should just not expect me to go and watch them. Lamb, though, is a kind of exception. It’s all kind of interesting in a quirky kind of way. And it starts Noomi Rapace as Maria, which is always a good thing.
So, what is it all supposed to mean? Well, I haven’t got the foggiest idea, and I fear that the more you try and attach meaning to the metaphor, the less satisfying it will be, the less it will actually work. Instead, if we just treat it as some sort of Icelandic folk tale, as something that is what it’s is, then we can just sit back and enjoy it without seeing any need to analyse it.
So, Lamb may be all about loss, or grief, or childlessness, or all or none of these. Some of the imagery could be religious – but then again it might not be. But if you try to work out what exactly stands for what, you will quickly become overwhelmed by how little the analogies work. If you want to see a story which is primarily about a childless couple there are other films out there. However, if you want to watch a strange half-lamb, half-child thing, then you’re at the right place.
Should you go to see Lamb? Well, yes, if you like this sort of thing, and no, you don’t. And what is “this sort of thing”? I guess you need to go and see the film to find out. I have really run out of comparisons and can’t think of a film which is remotely comparable. Which is a good, or a bad, thing, depending on how you look at it.
Sorry to be so unhelpful with this review, but I can definitely promise that this is not one straight out of the Marvel Universe (or whatever it’s called). And you certainly can’t accuse director Valdimar Jóhannsson of a lack of ambition.