This bizarre directing debut is fascinatingly original
There are hints of a new wave of cinema coming from Scandinavia. There appears to be a fascination with the fable/fairytale given a modernist dark spin. Such was the case with the Swedish Border (2018), which imagined real life trolls acting as border agents. Iceland has now delivered a film in a similar tonal and thematic vein with Lamb (2021).
Lamb takes place in an isolated farm in the Icelandic wilderness. We follow a quiet childless couple (Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snaer Gudnasson) who farm sheep, and who one fateful day find that one of their sheep has given birth to a mysterious lamb. The couple adopt this bizarre lamb as their own daughter, throwing off the balance of nature. I remain cryptic about the true nature of this newborn lamb because the film largely keeps you in the dark until halfway through. Safe to say the newborn is not fully a sheep.
Lamb is the directorial debut of Vladimar Johansson, who has previously racked up credits as a camera assistant on Hollywood blockbusters. His bursting on the cinematic scene with this film is truly astounding. Lamb is an incredibly bold piece of filmmaking, unafraid of its weird aspects, and keen to disturb and provoke its viewers. However, Johansson is able to keep things small and restrained enough, so that Lamb remains more compact than Border was. Throughout much of the first half of the film, hardly a word is spoken, with Johansson expertly using his camera and editing to bring forth communicative performances from much of the farm animals. It is only in the second half of Lamb that Johansson succumbs to having to use dialogue to deliver some exposition. Even so, there is an admirable effort to try and tell his story as visually and with as little dialogue as possible.
Lamb is such a unique and original film, that one could project many themes and messages onto it. Johansson seems to focus more on grief and parenting, and the difficulties and conflicts that rooted in them. By keeping close to Rapace’s character, this allows for her character study to be an anchor for most of the film. However, Lamb could also be read in a myriad of other ways. There is a clear criticism and warning of the meddling of humans with nature’s laws, and biblical references are sprinkled throughout. Johansson never indulges in explaining too much, for which viewers will be rewarded, leading to a lively discussion and theorizing after the credits have rolled.
In such a silent film, actors are given much more weight to carry narratively. Nevertheless, the small cast in Lamb is more than up to the task. Rapace is truly spectacular, her lead performance begins as a cypher, but slowly starts unwrapping as we discover the pieces of her shattered character. Similarly, Snaer Gudnasson relies on a quiet charisma and charm to lure viewers in, exposed in quotidian scenes as he fixes tractors and feeds the sheep, but slowly building his attachment with viewers. However, a special mention should be given to the animals in Lamb, who might not be aware of what a film is, but who are directed and edited so spectacularly that some scenes are heart-wrenching with a simple sheep stare.
In the end, Lamb is a fascinating if alienatingly original film. It’s bold foray into the bizarre and the allegory may be too much for some viewers, but for those brave enough there is a compelling reward. Johansson explodes onto the directorial arena with true flair and skill, and makes this viewer excited as to what he’ll do next.