Lamb, Reviewed: A Horror Film Where Cleverness Is the Problem – The New Yorker

The horror-proximate fantasy Lamb, which opens Friday in theatres, is the first feature by the Icelandic director Valdimar Jhannsson (who co-wrote the script with the musician and novelist Sjn), and it plays more like a calling card, a display of professionalism, than an experience. There are only about twenty minutes of its one-and-three-quarter-hour running time that sustain any interest, thanks to a late-breaking twist of industrial-strength cleverness. The narrative trickery that sets up the storyand the sense of a setup is palpable throughoutresults in a grossly oversimplified tale that reeks of cynicism. Lamb preens and strains to be admired even as it reduces its characters to pieces on a game board and its actors to puppets.

The subject of Lamb is a fantasy thats planted with meticulous yet narrow attention to a realistic context. Mara (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snr Gunason) are a young couple on a farm in a remote part of Iceland. They grow crops (most prominently, potatoes) and they raise a few dozen sheep, which live in a barn a short walk across sloping fields from their comfortable and casual little farmhouse. Their workdays involve driving a tractor, leading the sheep through fields, schlepping hay for the sheep to eat, preparing meals, helping sheep give birth, tagging and logging the new arrivals. But their regular routine is disturbed by the barking of their dog near the barn; the couple go in to see whats up with the sheep, and, looking surprised, note that one of the sheep has given birth without help. Taking the newborn in her arms, Mara brings it back to the farmhouse, where, wrapped in a blanket, it lives in a metal washtub. They feed it milk with a baby bottle and raise it in the house, dragging a crib from a storage area to a space next to their own bed, where the swaddled lamb will live.

Despite glimpses of the grand, mountainous Icelandic locale and of activities in the house and on the farm, Lamb offers virtually no characterization, no inner life, no substance. Theres nothing wrong with a mystery filmed from the outside, in which only observation of the characters elicits clues. But Lamb constructs its characters solely as clue generators; their identity is limited to their function. The gap between what the characters know (or, for that matter, who they are) and what theyre shown doing is blatant and frustrating; it makes the movie resemble pages of redacted testimony on which there are more stripes of black ink than legible text. It is, for instance, only a third of the way through the film that the lamb in question is revealed to be actually a hybrid of lamb and humanher head is that of a lamb, and her right arm is a lambs furry foreleg, but the rest of her body is humanoid. This fact, known instantly by the couple and weighing on them like some sort of grave matter, is kept a secret from viewers.

Mara and Ingvar name the ovine girl Ada (pronounced ahda), dress her in sweaters and pants, and raise her as their daughter. A few years pass. Ada is now a calm toddler, who walks upright; she doesnt speak, but she understands what Mara and Ingvar say. Then the family gets a visitorIngvars neer-do-well brother Ptur (Bjrn Hlynur Haraldsson), a former rock musician, who is rudely dumped from the trunk of a car onto their property by a trio of people whom Mara and Ingvar assume are his creditors. Mara and Ingvar are surprised that Ptur has returned, which is to say that he used to live or visit there; its never made clear, but this is in any case the first time hes been there in years, and thus the first time that he meets Ada. His skepticism about the couples decision to raise her takes on an especially bitter and menacing edge, for reasons that are only very belatedly and very thinly suggested to the viewer (but are instantly obvious to all three adults). Mara and Ingvar fear that Ptur is going to do something to harm Ada or otherwise get rid of her, and this air of fear and menacecombined with Pturs efforts to spark an affair with Maradrives the drama.

There is nothing anywhere in the film to suggest what Mara and Ingvar are thinking. For the first ten minutes, they dont say a word. When theyre shown reading or writing, the substance is neither seen nor heard. When they finally do speak to each other, its to exchange banalities. They say nothing of substance about their daily lives or immediate concernsfor instance, not a word to each other about Adas unusual form, about any practicalities that it entails, about the significance to them of her presence. Something has been out of whack in the household (hint: the crib in the storage room) but, much as its in the forefront of the couples minds, even in their activities, the information isnt dropped in the film until very late, and then only as a virtual onscreen Post-it. (In a prime example of the directors cagey, shticky way with information, even the protagonists names are dropped late into the story.)

Physical labor is dispatched in similarly emblematic ways. Do Mara and Ingvar sell the sheep? Butcher the sheep? Its never shown, or even suggested. Their isolationdo they have any friends, any other relatives, any visitors who might also register surprise at Adas unusual form? None that are seen, and the story appears to span about five years. Pturs skepticism regarding the couples raising of Ada is similarly dispatched in a hollow sentence or two. The silences that follow the scant, merely informative dialogue are stupefying silences in which characters are conspicuously turned empty, as if by directorial fiat. Even the movies images are stultifyingly retentive, offering information in serenely decorative form and even cutting the best elementsits rare closeups of Ada and of sheepto merely indicative snippets.

In part, the frustration that Lamb elicits is a function of the craft that obviously went into its making. The problem is that all of the evident thought was channelled narrowly into making sure that the story sticks its landing. Far from considering the implications and possibilities opened by its story, the films careful organization stifles them. Without any loose endsand without any conceptual or stylistic audacity behind its sparsenessLamb appears cut off not only from its characters inner lives but from the inner life of its creators. Films of humanoid hybrids are having a moment: Julia Ducournaus Titane is also currently in theatres, and the director follows the implications of its fantasy premise to wild extremes; what it lacks in the overt voicing of its characters subjectivity it furiously and splendidly makes up for with the directors own teeming inner worlds and visionary imaginings. Lamb reduces fantasy to an excuse and imagination to a product. To my surprise, it won the Prize of Originality in the Un Certain Regard section of this years Cannes Film Festival. This, and its over-all acclaim, offer a grim view of the state of the art house. If awards it must get, give its twenty twisty minutes an Oscar for Best Live Action Short and be done with it.

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Lamb, Reviewed: A Horror Film Where Cleverness Is the Problem - The New Yorker

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