This year’s surfeit of films about cults hits its stride with Malgorzata Szumowska’s first English-language picture. A visceral, Atwoodian journey, The Other Lamb is as much an examination of narcissism and the existing structures of gendered power as it is of the limits of faith.
Living a philistine existence and clad in pseudo-puritanical garb, the ‘Shepherd’ (Michiel Huisman) and his brainwashed followers exhibit only a smattering of the trappings of contemporary society – an old trailer daubed with a mural of the Shepherd or the remains of earring piercings. We’re given only the slightest hints of how he has gathered his so-called all-female flock, though the division of them between ‘wives’ and ‘daughters’ – clad respectively in red and blue like some off-brand version of Gilead – offers a pretty big clue as to how the group has expanded.
The group’s forest-dwelling is captured luminously by cinematographer Michal Englert; the damp pine bark of the trees and the sheepskin blankets of the women’s shared beds at once beautiful, eerie and suffocating. The bizarre woollen pen in which the Shepherd holds his sermons pithily summarises the tone of the film in a single image.
As Selah (Raffey Cassidy) – a daughter – sits on the verge of womanhood, the film’s general of direction of travel is clear: her furtive glances at the Shepherd as he cavorts with his favourite wife and her recurring vision of a ram signal both a growing sexual curiosity and discontent with her lot, even if she doesn’t realise it yet.
Another vision, this time of Serah in an alternative life, is less clear in its meaning but still evocative in its texture, while the coinciding of her belated first period with the birthing of a horribly deformed lamb is a nightmarish revelation. It’s a stunning, shocking image, repeated and built upon throughout the film. The key to the Shepherd’s power is his monopoly over meaning: storytelling is forbidden for all but him. But as the women begin to spin their own narratives and as Selah appropriates the symbol of the lamb for herself, her menstrual blood transforms from an emblem of shame to one of baptismal empowerment.
Selah’s latent rebellion is hastened by a wife fallen from the Shepherd’s grace (Denise Gough), who tells her of the early days the flock when she would sneak out at night to stand naked before a waterfall. This fable provides another of the film’s unforgettable images, strongly reminiscent of the climax of Robert Eggers’ The Witch. As the film nears its lapsarian climax, The Other Lamb proffers a vision of Eden with no place for Adam.
The 44th Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 5-15 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell