by Jordan King
Lamb – A.K.A In The Bleat Midwinter – is one of the most bizarre, beguiling feature debuts we have been given in some time. Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, who shares writing duties with frequent Björk collaborator and Robert Eggers’ The Northman co-writer Sjón, Lamb offers viewers a mesmerically off-kilter story about an unlikely found family formed on an Icelandic mountainside farmstead. It’s an eerie, allegorical folktale moulded in the portentous fashion of a Grimm story and shot with the meditative stillness of a Béla Tarr film (seeing the Hungarian’s name attached as producer is about the only thing you could see coming here a mile off). It’s about grief, naturally, and it’s about family and the immutability of nature’s will. It’s also about the price that’s paid for the bargains we strike for ourselves to overturn what fate has deigned to give or deny us. It’s also about a very strange child whose simultaneously cute and skin-crawlingly creepy presence is the core around which many strange events and developments orbi
Originally titled Dýrið – The Animal – Jóhannsson’s film’s opening wastes no time in setting the tone to ‘Rural Dread’. From a blanket of fog, a herd of black horses emerge, only to make an about turn when they are spooked by an unseen presence. The camera cuts then to a ram intently staring out from behind a frosted window, wearing what can only be described as an expression of knowing – you may think me mad to say there are some astonishing sheep performances in this film, but also there are some astonishing sheep performances in this film, and Nameless Ram No. 1’s marks the first of several occasions where we are encouraged to accept that there are some things beyond the human mind’s comprehension, accessible only to ones given over to the land.
Following Ram’s introduction, a slow series of low-key foreboding pastoral scenes ensue – this will be a recurrent feature throughout, but Johannsson elicits discomfort in the quietude of nature with such skill that this isn’t a source of complaint. We meet in these early scenes Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason’s Maria and Ingvar, a farming couple who’ve sunken into silence in the aftermath of their daughter’s still birth. We see the tranquil monotony of their daily routine, shot with an elegiac reverence by Eli Arenson, and we watch their continued physical movement through a world we see and sense has ceased turning for them – Rapace and Guðnason’s sunken eyes and solemn co-existence are haunted by what should’ve been, broken by what presently is. And so we are inclined to settle alongside them for a while, waiting for something to happen that will disrupt the adrift pair’s malaise.
The entire thrust of Johannsson’s gently manipulative direction assures us that something is lurking beyond – maybe even within – the mist for Maria and Ingvar to discover, but nothing can prepare you – or them – for exactly what that is. An inexplicable arrival shrouded in a sense of secrecy that will take the best part of an hour to be lifted proves to be the awaited signal for change, but as the grieving couple begin to reconstruct their relationship and find happiness in their lives again (as strange as its source may be), dark omens and darker deeds done ensure that their joy comes burdened with the knowledge that all those living with grief are beholden to – nothing good can ever truly last. Rapace’s conveying of Maria’s total, consuming will for this new beginning to soften the crushing nature of the life that has only recently ended is a white-knuckled exercise in dramatic grit and fortitude, whilst Guðnason’s slightly more reserved but similarly pleading efforts to get things back on some sort of track – whether or not he truthfully feels it is right – has an internalised turmoil to it that is tremendous to watch.
Without saying too much, Maria and Ingvar’s loss is attemptedly compensated for with their sort-of adoption of a peculiar child whose particular peculiarity could only make sense in a twisted sort of fairytale. In fact, until Ingvar’s brother Pétur arrives halfway through the film to say exactly what we have all been thinking – “What the fuck is this?” – there is a legitimate case to be made that the heartbroken couple have concocted a fantasy to escape the pain and trauma of reality. In reality (well, the film’s reality), they really have done exactly what it seems they have done, which opens the film up to some sub-Saharan humour and visual gags that don’t so much ease the tension as magnify its omnipresence. Once the lecherous Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) is on the scene – whose advances on Maria and knowledge of one such dark deed that has been undertaken by her he wields like a shiv – he bursts the bubble of bizarre bliss created by the revitalised couple’s choices, and we find that the lighthouse they have metaphorically built to weather the storms of their despair is in fact a helter skelter, and the slide down is strewn with fresh hells ultimately of their own creation.
In many ways, the film’s original, more ambiguous title The Animal is its best-fitting. Not only does it maintain an air of mystery about the story’s subject and content, but it also serves as a more provocative precursor to a work which probes the boundaries between what we see as human and what we other as beast, a film that addresses the perils of anthropomorphising pets while achingly conveying the sorts of shattering experiences that can lead people down such a dangerous path. Lamb certainly cuts to the chase and makes for a more marketable prospect (just a glance at A24’s Twitter unearths a slew of ewey offerings), but I couldn’t help wondering whether some, expecting something more acute and on-the-nose, and maybe even more overtly horrifying, may feel a little left in the lurch by a film that makes an asset of its glacial pacing and oftentimes impenetrable narrative path.
Title talking divergence excepting, it is incredibly hard to pick fault with Lamb, primarily because it is so clearly and concentratedly exactly what the filmmaker and their collaborators conceived that watching it feels like an out-of-body experience of sorts – we meet Johannsson up in the rolling fog and witness an abstract, art house film that has an emotional and atmospheric specificity that is utterly compelling to behold. By the time this devastatingly well shot, hauntingly scored, and hypnotically performed oddity is over, its beginning and ending couldn’t feel farther removed, and yet everything in between has led us through the maelstrom to arrive precisely where the Icelandic director sees fit to place us. There is, as is so often said, no wrong way to grieve, but Valdimar Johannsson’s extraordinarily weird Oscar hopeful certainly suggests there’s at least one or two methods that are ill-advised.
Lamb lands on MUBI and select cinemas on the 10th December!