Lamb:”Once upon a time strange things happened”
It must be a condition of living in Iceland that remote living and human isolation set against a harsh, foreboding environment are distinctive factors in Icelandic films. The severe climate represented in the recent Icelandic movie Lamb is indicative of the extreme conditions and the human emotional factors that are influenced by the harsh climate. The severe climate, in turn, precipitates the extreme human emotions that enshroud the film’s characters.
Married couple Maria (Noomi Rapace, who mesmerised us as Lisbeth in the Scandinavian film productions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason), whose names we don’t know until well into the movie, live regimented lives and a subsistence existence in a remote mountainous region in Iceland. They sow potatoes, birth sheep and barely speak between themselves.
Not only do we not learn their names, the first third of the movie is labourious in its intention to grind us through their daily existence. The drudgery of chores and the necessities of life would crush most people into oblivion.
Maria & Ingvar: Remote living & human isolation
Maria and Ingvar manage to survive physically against the elements and emotionally against the personal demons that haunt their past. Their low-level spoken communication suppresses their yearning for someone who was present but is now missing in their lives.
Their gloom is exacerbated by the isolation provided by the remote mountainous region. Nature allows them a state of grace by co-exisiting in the natural environment as long as the couple do not work against the order of nature, even though strange disturbances are about to unsettle that order. At any stage, it is clear that nature can revoke its tolerance of Maria and Ingvar and withdraw its indulgence with extreme force.
The balance between human and nature is tested when Maria and Ingvar birth a lamb that astounds them. We do not see what is unusual, even unnatural, about the lamb. The unexpected arrival subtly but irrevocably changes Maria and Ingvar’s lives. The lamb signals to Maria that the unfilled place in her heart and the unresolved emotional trauma they have experienced is about to be fulfilled.
Maria & Ada
Maria, in particular, forms an unnatural bond with the lamb. Ingvar, too, describes the birth of this lamb as “happiness”. They name the lamb Ada. We are not privy to the special nature of the lamb until sometime later in the film and it is unsettling. For Ingvar, Maria and ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hylnur Haraldsson), who arrives unannounced at the farm, any initial doubts and revulsion shift to acceptance.
For a long time, we, the audience, form visions of the extraordinary possibilities of this creature. There will be no spoiler alerts because you should let the revelation unfold as you watch the film, if that is your intention. It begs the question about how Maria and Ingvar will explain this creature as it grows and interacts with other people. The remote location and limited human interaction provides a convenient escape clause.
Maria senses unnatural forces stalking her farm
Lamb clearly delves into the folkloric tradition. Maria and Ingvar’s restricted living, a sense of dread and an acceptance of the unfathomable nature of aberrations to the natural way are the key to this movie. Fantasy blends with folk tales bordering on superstitions and tales designed to imbue in children a respect, rather than a fear, for nature in ways known and things unknown.
Lamb draws on the human emotional connections in the natural world and the terrifying tales of unnatural beings on the periphery of human settlements. In that context, Lamb is a tale with supernatural intentions beyond the accepted notions of how the natural world works and the creatures that inhabit it. These unnatural creatures border on animalism based on beliefs that claim humans are essentially animals.
Within the landscape in Lamb, nature is passive until it unleashes its displeasure when it feels humans are abusing the natural order of things. Lamb is also a tale of enduring sadness and grief to the point of being unbearable.
Maria and Ingvar’s personal demons are realised in the folk lore bearing down on them. Maria senses natural forces beyond their understanding encroaching upon their lives and their animals. She senses a supernatural presence stalking the farm. The barren landscape, torturous weather conditions and lurking suspicions that unnatural forces abound in the mountains reflect the personal barrenness that envelopes their lives.
When Maria commits a brutal act against one of their animals, the natural order is disturbed and the encroaching aberration of nature is unleashed, not in a massive destructive spree, but in a way that will shape Maria, Ingvar and Ada’s lives.
Lamb will not be to everyone’s liking. You will either approach it in a conventional way as a type of horror film that will shock, rather than terrorise you, or you will sense that it is a freakish tale that doesn’t appeal to you. Film fanatics will approach its stylistic and thematic concerns as a examination into Lamb’s placement in the wider spectrum of movies about human endeavours.
Unsettling & disturbing natural forces
It’s not a horror film in the traditional sense but there are images and supernatural elements in the mythic sense that will unsettle and disturb you. The final sequence will make you want to curl up in disbelief, denial and a sense of the terrible retribution exacted by a figure that personifies the natural world.
The more I think about it, the more I understand the depth of the ideas expressed by director Valdimar Jóhannson’s minimalist, stripped-bare approach.
Whichever way you look at it, Lamb is unsettling, strange and enticingly weird.
Icelandic with subtitles
Screening now in selected cinemas.
Check your local cinema for session times.
Official Trailer Lamb
FILM EXTRAS: Weird, weirder, weirdest.
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