In Valdimar Jóhannsson‘s Lamb, the humble Icelandic sheep herders María and Ingvar suffer a shock after helping one of their sheep to give birth: a creature with a lamb’s head and the body of a human (to give or take a hoof) . María and Ingvar admire the unsightly sight, exchange a glance and without a word take the creature to their house to raise it as their own child. The nonchalance with which this scene is played and staged raises a few questions: Was the couple prepared for this? Is the creature a metaphor for something? And – God forbid – did Ingvar fertilize a sheep?
This Lamb not bothering to broach that possibility for the next hour is part of her wry charm. It’s a film savvy enough to anticipate the questions of its audience and sweep them off their shoulders. True paragon of surrealism, Lamb offers the strangest images with deadly seriousness and asks you to just roll with them. No matter where the baby is from, she is now María and Ingvar’s daughter, and her name is Ada. Watch Ada grow up; see Ada splashing in the tub; smile as Ada puts on sweaters, eats cereal and walks with her dad. It’s like Eraser sprinkled with satisfied normality.
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Throughout its execution, Lamb operates on two levels: the metaphorical and the dryly comic. Its rhythm is methodical – laborious, almost – always keeping the full meaning of its metaphor a mystery for later. This reluctance makes the film not only enigmatic but also funny: every minute that Lamb treats its dynamics like any other family drama, it becomes more fun to settle into its rhythm and pretend nothing is out of the ordinary. Jóhannsson keeps a sense of unease on the sidelines – there are several planes of haze drifting eerily over the mountains, and the film has an otherworldly ability to turn sheep into nebulous and ominous omens by layering music (or sound). absence) on a framing shift – but the story continues in blissful ignorance. Ingvar’s brother, Pétur, moves in with them and is at first disturbed by his chimerical niece, but he turns to Ada like a father with the cat he didn’t want. It’s hard not to: the visual effects work that went into making Ada cute is pleasantly compelling.
There are indications that the central metaphor is that of nature versus education. María and Ingvar anthropomorphize their daughter, accustom her to human language and teach her human customs; but Pétur, in his initial skepticism, tries to prove that Ada is a mere animal by feeding her grass. There’s a lot of film left at this point, but remarkably little is done to deepen, complicate, or subvert the nature / education theme from there. LambHis continual evasion of the weirdness of his concept ranges from funny to drab – everything is so quiet, from tone to color, and the simplicity of the story begins to feel more like a blockage than a smirk.
The finale finally embraces the ridiculousness of it all, ending with a nicely gonzo twist that clarifies the central metaphor. But while the event is bizarre on the surface, it only reinforces how threadbare the film’s subtext is. Lamb may not end as you expected, but that only means what you thought it might. Anything that goes beyond the obvious is too discreet to cling to.
??½ (2.5 / 5)