Valdimar Jóhannsson’s debut feature film, Lamb, is a surreal, cautionary folktale of the quiet, slow-burn battle between mother nature and a nurturing mother set in rural Iceland.
Climate change and the alarmingly frequent natural disasters that have been occurring across the globe are large-scale examples of humankind being incredibly unkind to the planet we call home. Lamb is an allegorical tale that portrays this within a trippy family drama about parenting, grief, and healing.
There are consequences when nature’s resources are ravaged and depleted for selfish ends. María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are the couple on which the film centers and they learn this lesson on a horrifically primal and familial level.
Note: Spoilers for Lamb are contained in the rest of this review.
Told in chapters and tapped from the cardiac vein of the folk horror genre, Lamb plays out like a nightmarish fable. María and Ingvar live an isolated life on their sheep farm in a mountainous region of Iceland. Still, in mourning over the loss of their child, the couple goes through the motions of tending to their flock with an underlying sadness.
This is established visually with very few words, and the bucolic atmosphere is saturated with an ominous mood from the beginning. A sense of dread and fear is accompanied by lengthy shots of livestock, a closeup of a sheep’s eye, the imagery of contained wildness. The process of lambing (assisting an ewe in the birthing of their offspring) is shown realistically through the unapologetic lens of the camera and is not for the squeamish.
It’s as natural as it can get until an unnatural occurrence takes place. One of the lambs is born and its mother is not given the chance to lick it clean or bond with it as was shown with the others. María and Ingvar share a grave look and then take the newborn lamb into their home.
They begin to “raise” this lamb as their child, even naming her after the child they lost, Ada. Gradually, through visuals, it is revealed that this lamb is a human-sheep hybrid. The first few shots of Ada have an almost hallucinatory effect, and the slow, metered unearthing of what she actually is makes it seem as if she is becoming more human as it goes on. This speaks to Ada’s assimilation into life as a human child.
María cruelly took this lamb from its mother who does not take this lightly. She stands outside the window and bleats sorrowfully for her baby, becoming a very loud and persistent reminder to María of her misdeed. And instead of facing this problem, she silences it by killing Ada’s mother.
This begins a running theme of avoiding harsh truths and burying emotional baggage rather than dealing with it. They had never properly healed from their trauma of losing a child, and when the opportunity presents itself, they take on this replacement child without hesitation. They defend their decision to Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), Ingvar’s brother and, apparently, María’s past lover.
Pétur: What the fuck is this?
The second chapter depicts this period of happiness, but all the while, we know it won’t last, and they seem to as well. However, it’s a brief respite from the nagging anxiety of impending doom. That anxious fog lifts and the odd little family enjoys their idyllic life for a bit. The aesthetic changes as well—sunnier, brighter colors—and the general mood of the characters are lighthearted and carefree. In the distance, though, nature’s vengeance is approaching in the form of Ada’s true father, a towering half-man, half-ram beast, that is both awesome and terrifying.
María and Ingvar became numb to the pain when their child died, but feelings of grief need to be felt in order to move on. When Ada’s father comes to claim her, they are forced to feel the pain of loss. He shoots Ingvar and takes Ada in the same cruel way María had; and now she is utterly alone.
Having sent Pétur away when he wanted to rekindle their affair, she comes home to her husband dead and her child gone. The last frames of the film are on María. Through her distress, it’s evident that she’s made the decision not to run after Ada and to be present in the suffering. She’s all too aware of the poetic justice that has played out and knows the only way to heal is to face the horrible consequences and to feel all the feelings.
I mean, she could’ve just gone to grief counseling, right?
But then there wouldn’t be this dark, haunting parable of maternal love and loss. It is visual storytelling at its most raw and most fantastical. The subtle yet moving performances, a pace that’s meandering yet methodical, and imagery that transports one to a dreamlike place complete with mythical creatures and peaceful, pastoral landscapes contribute to the atmospheric horror that is Lamb.