“It’s not a child, it’s an animal!” Or is it? After watching this strange, introverted chiller from Iceland you’ll never feel comfortable hearing someone refer to a baby as “a little lamb”.
Like all Icelandic movies, Valdimar Johannsson’s debut feature, co-written with the novelist, Sjón, is strong on landscape. The screen is filled with sweeping vistas of bare fields and slopes ringed by craggy, snow-topped mountains. Humanity is in more limited supply, as there are only three people in this story. The rest of the cast consists of a dog, a cat and a flock of sheep, all of whom appear to have had acting lessons, so well-drilled are their expressions and reactions.
María and Ingvar (Naomi Roopace and Hilmir Snær Gudnason) live and work on an isolated farm in the north of the island. They raise sheep and grow potatoes. Their life is simple, but they seem happy – or as happy as anyone ever seems in a Scandinavian film, in which an all-pervasive melancholy may be taken for granted.
The story begins before we meet the two main characters. In the opening minutes an unseen presence comes lumbering over the fields in the midst of a snow storm. We adopt the monster’s point-of-view as it barges into the barn where the sheep are kept. With masterly ovine acting they turn to face the intruder with looks of alarm, and try to scramble out of harm’s way. It’s not a massacre after all, but when the invisible menace has departed one sheep is left lying on the floor looking exhausted and ravaged
After a quarter hour of pastoral calm, in which María and Ingvar go about their chores, they help a ewe give birth and stare at each other wide-eyed. María carries the little lamb away, determined to raise it as if it were her own child. Only at the end of the first of three ‘chapters’ do we discover that this lamb has a human hand.
By Chapter Two the lamb is toddling around on two legs, and has acquired a name: Ava. María and Ingvar have completely accepted her as their daughter, oblivious to the fact that this hybrid child has a sheep’s head and one hoof, while the rest of her body appears to be human.
This cosy family arrangment is too much for Ingvar’s good-for-nothing brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who arrives in unorthodox fashion, having been dumped on the side of the road by friends who look like they’d prefer to be dumping his body in a ditch. “What the fuck is this?” he says, when confronted with little Ava. “Happiness,” is the reply.
Pétur tries to force the issue, arguing that they are treating an animal as if it were a child, but for María and Ingvar there’s nothing to discuss. Ava is part of the family. Pétur is not so easily convinced and thinks it’s his duty to dispose of the pest. This turns out to be more difficult than he had expected.
It’s actually Pétur who is the disruptive element. Lazy, self-indulgent, and constantly putting the hard word on María when his brother isn’t looking. Ava is a model lamb-child. Alas, like almost all unnatural arrangements in the cinema, we know this happy nuclear family is not going to last. From the first scenes it’s clear there’ll be no Hollywood ending because the invisible monster that fathered cute little Ava is lurking out there amid all that spectacular scenery.
Lamb is a philosophical horror movie that avoids the shock-and-gore that has made the genre such a huge turn-off for anyone without a pronounced sadistic streak. Jóhannsson sets the scene early on, when María and Ingvar are watching TV. She asks him if he heard what was being discussed. “Something about folk tales,” he replies.
This ordinary moment is a key to a story that unfolds exactly like a folk tale in contemporary dress – not leathery animal skins, but woolly jumpers and wind-cheaters; not an enchanted castle or a cottage in the woods, but a farm house in a lonely corner of the world. In folk tales the line between human and animal is permeable. Animals act, and often speak, like humans. They seek to help or to undermine us. The folk universe is populated by shape-shifters, able to transform themselves into animals or humans, and by those who have been trapped in one of these states.
María and Ingvar, in their isolation, have grown so accepting of the relationship between the animal and human worlds they automatically see Ava not as a freak of nature, but a gift of God.
The skill of the film is to balance the supernatural element, which is treated as if it were perfectly ordinary, with the psychological drama of a childless couple living apart from society. It’s only later in the story we learn that Ava is a replacement for a dead child, also named ‘Ava’. We see María’s ferocious jealousy and anger directed at the mother sheep who won’t give up her claim on the lamb. It’s a determined performance from Noomi Rapace, who had to learn Icelandic to take on this role.
There’s a sense in which Ingvar is a little scared of his hard-bitten wife in his quickness to accept Ava as their adopted daughter. Viewers may be wondering if María believes Ingvar might be Ava’s biological father because – without knowing about the invisible monster of the first scenes – there appear to be few other ways such a child could have been conceived.
If they haven’t offended against nature in this manner they are still guilty of an invincible sense of species superiority. Ava has activated María and Ingvar’s parental instincts but this hasn’t changed their view of the other sheep. Amid that stark, awesome landscape, a reckoning awaits.
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson
Written by Sjón & Valdimar Jóhannsson
Starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Gudnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson,
Iceland/Sweden/Poland, rated MA 15+, 106 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 October, 2021