Though it does contain a cosmic joke that’s shockingly funny if not particularly original, Icelandic director Valdimar Johannsson’s Lamb seems stuck for most of its running time in narrative limbo. Atmospherically creepy and purposely bizarre, its milieu is nevertheless so steeped in everyday tedium that the movie can’t muster the power necessary for either horror or black comedy. Part of the problem may be that Johannsson sets the story up with such visual assurance. Lamb is set on an isolated farm in a large meadow surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountains that are often shrouded in mist, an environment that accentuates the sullen demeanor of the central couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), who go about their chores with a quiet determination that seems to hide a deeper misery.
Most of their attention is focused on sheep, which Johannsson depicts in such a way as to bring out any nuance of expression on the animals’ part. The dark portent that the script requires to sell its central joke is generated by the normal human-animal relationship you see on a working farm. Maria and Ingvar show no particular affection for their four-legged charges—until lambing season when one ewe discharges a female that leaves the couple blinking in disbelief, the first time in the film they’ve manifested any raw emotion.
Maria and Ingvar endeavor to raise this lamb as their own daughter, and it’s suggested several times that the animal is a surrogate for a child that was lost. Cut off from anything resembling human society, they can do this without raising eyebrows, since there are no eyebrows to raise; that is, until Ingvar’s brother, Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), shows up unexpectedly. At first, Petur, a former addict and general misbegotten soul (nobody calls him a “black sheep,” but that seems to be the message), finds the lamb’s position in the household disturbing, but in a sudden and very disconcerting change of heart, he decides she’s adorable and becomes a kind of doting uncle, which frees his brother and sister-in-law to spend more time for themselves. Then Petur spoils the vibe by making moves on Maria, with whom he obviously had a relationship in the past.
Lamb never quite gets back on track after this detour, which seems both unnecessary and dramatically destablizing. The portentous elements continue to accummulate, but they become less portentous as the viewer navigates this inter-familial subplot. It’s definitely a lost opportunity. The couple’s affection for their lamb-child contrasts starkly with their disregard for the welfare of the other sheep, in particular Maria’s resentment of the ewe that gave birth to Ada, which is what they name the lamb. It’s a theme I expected Johannsson to explore more fully, but he’s so distracted with other matters that by the time he gets back to it you’ve lost the plot.
In Icelandic. Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).
Lamb home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Go To Sheep, Black Spark Film&TV, Madants, Film I Vast, Chimney, Rabbit Hole, Alicja Grawon-Jaksik, Helgi Johannsson