Boy, the Cannes Film Festival must’ve been a weird one this year.
The festival opened with Annette, which featured Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a couple who have a daughter with a beautiful singing voice… and she’s a marionette puppet. The top prize went to Titane, which I have yet to see, but revolves around some sort of car erotica. A24’s Lamb also had its premiere, and the Icelandic film focuses on a couple who raises an lamb/ human hybrid. So yeah, weird stuff. But also some weirdly ambitious and audacious stuff, too. In terms of Lamb, the film unfolds slowly, but becomes a work that is bizarre and poetic, unsettling but thought provoking.
Lamb is a movie you’re either going to go for, or you’re not. The first 30 minutes move a little slowly, yet it’s also intriguing, in that you have an idea of what’s happening, but you’re also not sure. Eventually the film lays its cards out on the table, but the film does such a beautiful job of keeping us at arm’s length. By that I mean, after it’s initial surprise, the viewer sits there wondering what the hell is going to happen next, and part of what makes the film so unsettling is that what we’re witnessing is something we’re unfamiliar of, and because of that, we’re afraid of what we don’t understand.
Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Guonason star as Maria and Ingvar, a childless but otherwise happily married couple who run a lamb farm out in the middle of the Icelandic wilderness (the scenery is undeniably beautiful, but it should also be said that everything in Lamb feels so beautifully remote that it adds to the discomfort). They cater to the lambs, clipping them, feeding them, breeding them, etc. One afternoon while a lamb is giving birth, Maria and Ingvar lay their eyes upon a particularly unique lamb. We are not sure, at first, what makes this lamb stand out, but the two take it with them and place it in a baby’s crib.
The lamb’s mother doesn’t take this all too well, as she stands outside of her daughter’s room begging for her. The baby (who the couple name Ada) is of course unable to join her birth mother, but Maria and Ingvar raise Ada like one of their own. Thrown into the mix is the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), who is pretty baffled by the fact that not only are the couple raising a lamb as if it’s a human, but the lamb is also, well… part human. Is Ada up to something sinister, or is there something sinister lurking around the corner?
All of this sounds rather silly, of course, but Lamb is no laughing matter. Well, okay, there are two major developments in Lamb that are so jolting, jarring and surprising that it couldn’t help but elicit a laugh, but I did feel as if I was laughing with it, at least. That you’re able to take any of it seriously is a testament to the writing, the directing, and performances. Particularly the writing… or maybe the directing… or, maybe the performances. Even when I had no idea where Lamb was going, I was always intrigued by where it was going.
I think part of the beauty of the film is in first time director Valdimar Johannsson’s approach. Johannsson frames this film as if it is a horror movie; as if there is something dark and mysterious lurking underneath the surface. In a way, there is. And there is something certainly unsettling in its premise, which of course follows a lamb who also happens to be a partially human girl. Are we supposed to be frightened of her, or are we frightened of what we don’t understand? Are we supposed to find her cute, or could she attack at any second?
The acting here really is top notch, because there’s never really a moment where you sense that they’re not taking the material seriously. Maybe they did get a chuckle out of the nuttiness of the material, but this does feel like a movie that was made with care. The film certainly won’t appeal to everyone, because it is pretty damn strange and isn’t tremendously exciting, but after it was over, it did feel as if I’d been taken on a unique journey; one that gets better the more you think about it. Not to mention, one that feels distinctly original.
Lamb is essentially a fable; a piece of Icelandic lore brought to the screen. It’s also a depiction of grief and loss, yet the more you think about it, the more the film could be about even more than that. It could be seen as an allegory, or a commentary. But at its core it’s a domestic drama. Or is it? By the 30 minute mark, when Lamb made its first big reveal, the film left me intrigued until the very end. It’s a film I enjoyed as I was watching it, but like it even more the more I sit here typing.