Posts Tagged ‘Valdimar Johansson’

Making a strong if slightly oblique challenge for the title of Weirdest Christmas Film of the Year (and a decent tilt at Weirdest Film, full stop) is Valdimar Johansson’s Lamb (Icelandic title: Dýrið). It seems like a lifetime ago that the less-mainstream offerings at this time of year around Oxford used to include vintage offerings like Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves and it is nice to see a film very broadly in the same vein turning up now.

Quite what kind of a movie this actually is takes a while to become apparent (and some might say that the question is never entirely resolved). It opens in the heart of a howling blizzard, only the vague dark shapes of a herd of horses visible in the distance, only hoarse, inhuman breathing audible above the wind. Whatever is abroad in the snow, it is quite literally frightening the horses.

The sheep at the nearest farm respond to all this in their usual largely-inscrutable fashion, but it is clear that something has taken an interest in them. Completely oblivious to all this are the farmers running the place, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and his wife Maria (Noomi Rapace): they seem outwardly content, but there is a sense of regret clinging to them which the film takes its time in exploring. (Though this is one of those movies which doesn’t seem to be in a great hurry to do anything.)

Spring arrives and with it lambing season; Ingvar and Maria devote themselves to this crucial time in their usual reserved way. (Rapace does her own veterinary stunts at this point, dragging lambs out of the back ends of sheep with her usual sublime composure.) But then one of the sheep produces a lamb sufficiently out of the ordinary to cause both of them to flinch and gasp.

What exactly makes this lamb so unusual is kept obscure for a while, but they take it into the house and bottle-feed it. I seem to remember from episodes of Blue Peter, or possibly One Man and His Dog, that this is not completely out of the ordinary where sheep farmers are involved. However, the lamb, which they name Ada, is soon sleeping in a cot and being snuggled by the couple as they watch TV. Warmth and delight seem to have entered their lives along with the new arrival. Ada’s birth mother, if that’s a term you can properly use to describe a ewe, is less happy about this, and is often heard plaintively calling for her offspring.

It very slowly and very gradually becomes apparent that Ada, while by no means a human being, is certainly not what you’d call an ordinary sheep, either – she is a mixture of the two which manages to be both unsettling and rather cute at the same time. Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from the tension between the surreal image of, essentially, a lamb-headed toddler, and the completely oblivious responses and behaviour of the two adoptive parents. The narrative driver of the second act of the film is the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a rather shifty former rock star, and even he takes an age before he comes out with the obvious question.

As I say, the issue of exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be is a reasonable one. If we’re going to be reductionist about things, then it’s a subtitled foreign film with a stately pace and limited use of music, which happened to win some kind of award at Cannes – which lands it squarely in art-house territory as far as most people are concerned. Certainly there is an indifference to conventional exposition here that is rarely found in mainstream cinema. On the other hand, judging by the trailers which preceded Lamb to the screen – and long-term readers will recall my thesis that films are almost always accompanied by trailers from the same genre – this is either an arty drama, a full-on horror movie or another superhero-horror fusion (the trailers were for del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Irish folk-horror film Unwelcome and the latest Marvel spin-off Morbius, which must count as a mixed bag by anyone’s standards).

All this really only matters in terms of giving you an idea of what the experience of watching Lamb is like. I wouldn’t describe it as a horror film per se, although there is certainly some bloody violence before the end and an ominous atmosphere for much of proceedings. Perhaps there is a note of self-conscious pretension to it that some viewers may find rather disagreeable; it is one of those films where you get the sense that everything has been thought through thoroughly in advance. On the other hand, for a film which seems intended to be taken as some kind of fable rather than a naturalistic drama, exactly what it’s supposed to be about is not particularly obvious. It initially seems to be some sort of parable about human exploitation of the natural world, and the inevitable cruelty and disregard for other forms of life which is involved; this may still be the case, but the arrival of Haraldsson’s character in the second act (this is such a formally stylised film it even comes with its own chapter headings) rather clouds the issue. There is also an element of (surely intentional) ambiguity around the climax of the film.

As I have suggested, Lamb is one of those films which can’t help coming across as intentionally weird, perhaps even somewhat affectedly so. It’s also a bit on the slow side, perhaps relying on atmosphere to do the heavy lifting where many films would opt for more incident and plot development, but it doesn’t quite drag – the striking landscape of a remote area of Iceland helps a lot in this respect. And the performances are all quite effective: Rapace is the star name, and she is convincing in a tricky (to say the least) part, but the two men are also quite convincing. It goes without saying that the visual effects used to realise the more outlandish elements of the film are also excellent. In the end, though, this is primarily an arthouse movie rather than anything more conventionally entertaining; it’s the kind of film that requires thought, not to mention the viewer dealing with it on its own terms. If nothing else it is a well-made curiosity.

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