Set amongst the blasted hills and rural farmland of Iceland, director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s feature debut Lamb is austere and strange in equal measure. Though it is inhabited by folkloric creatures, Lamb ultimately reveals itself as a human drama that uses generic conventions as a way of examining the destructive nature of trauma.
It’s lambing season on María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar’s (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) remote farm. As their flock of sheep go into labour, the viscera of mammalian birth in all its gruesome awe is layered on top of the film’s wonderfully-eerie opening sequence, in which an unseen entity enters the sheep barn at night and tups one of the ewes.
María and Ingvar take in the weird hybrid creature that emerges, naming it Ada, and raise it as a human child. Jóhannsson obscures Ada from us for as long as possible, allowing our imagination to create the weird creature for him. When he does pull back the curtain, the slightly uncanny visual effects only adds to the profound feeling of wrongness – this is a thing that shouldn’t exist, that couldn’t exist, a fairytale chimera made abjectly hyperreal.
It is unsettling in a fundamental, basic way that one feels in the gut. Yet this instinctive revulsion is juxtaposed by Ada’s nature, who seems as sweet, playful and ignorant as any human child – or indeed – lamb. She dances to music and listens attentively to her surrogate parents in something approaching the comic. Meanwhile, Ingvar and María act as if nothing is out of the ordinary, taking their cues, perhaps from their pet cat and sheepdog, who in their own ways have also transgressed the boundaries of the human and animal domains.
The film’s layering of these early sequences is one of its greatest strengths; there is a union of mood and cinematic grammar that, quite literally, births its strange progeny. The eponymous lamb, a ‘monster’ only in the sense of its bodily transgression, is at the film’s centre, around which the film’s human characters orbit. The drama of the film sits is in the unspoken margins aided by the script’s sparse dialogue, knocked up a gear when Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) arrives at the farm to bring both a pretty reasonable perspective on the situation (“What the fuck is this?”) and a new layer of narrative tension.
The charge of Lamb as a drama, rather than horror, is not meant as a pejorative: strip away the strange beasts that inhabit the film, and what we are left with is a narrative in which Ada manifests as the other characters’ buried traumas. Of course, domestic trauma – especially the fear of loss of a child – is fertile and well trodden ground for horror cinema. But Lamb differs from the genre in its use of the language of arthouse drama – austere compositions, static cameras and understated emotions and dialogue over the heightened excess and narrative conventions of true horror.
Indeed, it is only the opening sequence with it monstrous POV and explicit building of dread that Lamb truly engages in a cinematic language that could be considered genre. The film as a whole is neither scary nor particularly interested in the nature of its ‘monster’, though it is undoubtedly strange and often unsettling. Nevertheless, the incorporation of the supernatural does not a horror film make – instead Lamb understands – rightly – its monsters as narrative and symbolic tools to explore domestic grief and transgression.