dir: Valdimar Jóhannsson
Hmm. Well. This was a film. That I watched. Recently.
You can’t say you’ve seen many Icelandic films. Even if you watch more films than I do, and it’s unlikely, and also unless you’re Icelandic (Hi Björk, góðan daginn), you can’t really say you’ve seen that many either. I can think of tons of movies that have scenery shot in Iceland, because it’s an incredible looking place, perfect for movies as diverse as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Clint Eastwood’s two-for-one deal of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, that used the black rock beaches of Iceland to stand in for the Japanese island of the title.
But you wouldn’t call them Icelandic films, would you? A film from a place set in that place tells us something about the place beyond just the scenery. A film set in Iceland, on a farm, with a sad couple mourning the loss of a child; you’d hope such a set up tells us something, or at least the way it plays out.
In truth the main thing that drew me to this flick, called Lamb, was that one of the best flicks I saw this year was called Pig, and so if I kept things simple, and just watched movies with one word animal titles, I couldn’t go wrong.
Dumb strategy. Lamb is a lot, but it’s nothing like Pig, though they both have their merits.
As far as I know Icelandic is one of the hardest languages for a non-Icelandic person to learn. Imagine my surprise when I saw Swedish superstar Noomi Rapace as one of the two main leads here. Does she know Icelandic? No idea. No-one really speaks for more than a few words ever, at a time. “Check the barn.” “Okay.” Although she did move to Iceland as a child and grew up there, so it’s probably likely she’s all over the language.
She plays Maria, one half of the farming couple that have heaps of sheep, and some fields to plow with their tractor. At first, I thought the characters were just stoic Icelandic types: grim people matching the awe-inspiring but grim landscape.
But there is an underlying sadness there, that isn’t underlined by having the characters actually, you know, talk about things. Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) goes about his tasks all robot-like, but at one point behind the wheel of the tractor, starts sobbing.
It’s hard to describe what this film is about without ruining it, and I don’t mean spoilers. Spoilers would tell you “this or that happens”, but wouldn’t be able to get across how it feels, for most of the movie. The ending is… what it is, but for most of the flick, you are not entirely sure what you feel for the central couple, but you feel like you don’t want anything bad to happen to them.
That’s as obliquely as I can speak about it. I don’t entirely know when lambing season is in Iceland, or if they even have a spring, but it’s lambing season. The two actors help a whole bunch of pregnant ewes give birth to their lambs. Though CGI is used in the film, I don’t think any of these early scenes are special effects: I think they really are giving birth, and that these actors knew enough to not throw up or hurt the little critters.
Newborn lambs, so cute. The mothers lick the various fluids off of the helpless little things, and the two humans do what they can to help the littlies latch on.
What I haven’t mentioned is that prior to these scenes, as the film opened, a shot of a herd of Icelandic ponies, all shaggy, are disturbed by some heavy breathing entity. We don’t know who or what this entity is for most of the flick’s length. We still don’t know at the end, either.
Is it grief, is it sorrow, is it the Icelandic version of the boogieman? Who knows. Well, I do, but I’m not telling.
On one of the occasions where the couple great the birth of a new lamb, they look down, kinda surprised, and then look up at each other.
The surprise is mild, they don’t make a big deal out of it, but for whatever reason, this lamb has to come into the house with them. Ingvar eventually gets a crib that had been put into storage out of a shed, and brings it into their bedroom. The lamb is swaddled, and fed with a bottle, just like if it was a newborn…
I’ll let you fill in the blanks. They call the lamb Ada.
You wouldn’t have to guess much or know anything about Icelandic culture to perhaps guess that Ada might have been the name of a child of theirs no longer alive. At least that was my first assumption.
The family is happy, because they are a family again. They are almost joyous, but just to be a prick, the Icelandic version of joy is a slight smile, and the two ‘parents’ are mildly smiling again.
What joy. But there is still so much film to go.
A new chapter begins. Someone, some serpent has to be introduced to Paradise in order for there to be drama.
Ingvar has a fuck up brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who is unceremoniously dumped from out of the boot of a car by, I’m guessing either people he owes money to or friends / girlfriend who are sick of his bullshit. He makes the long march to the farm.
While this is happening, one of the sheep keeps bleating just outside the window where Ada either sleeps or hangs out. After a while, you kind of guess it’s Ada’s actual sheep mother. She is persistent, as most mother’s would be.
So. Are we to take it that Maria, to assuage her feelings of grief over losing her own child, has essentially stolen another mother’s child? Is that right?
And what about that mother’s feelings, huh?
Maria is a protagonist, though, and she has more tools / weapons available to her than the sheep mother does, who just misses her baby, and bleats plaintively for her return.
An array of things happen at about this time: Maria takes an action against Ada’s mother, Pétur, who’s something of a sex pest, arrives just when Maria is taking that action, but most importantly, we get to see something which explains nothing, but is still something of a revelation about Ada.
There could be more going on here that it seems, based on what I’ve written, but there could also be less. I could be projecting more onto it than is there. I just think there is something deeply, painfully psychologically confronting about this story even if the ending goes off the rails.
And the thing is, maybe I’m not tuned in to why the ending is the ending the story has to have. This isn’t a cautionary tale, or a morality tale, as far as I can tell, but there is something mythic in it, like a tale out of Iceland folklore about two people motivated by grief who make a terrible mistake by stealing someone or something else’s child.
There’s also the aspect of where people transfer their longing or their loss (over either a child, or not being able to have a child) onto a pet, or even onto dolls or some other substitute, down to there being a word for this in psychology, being alloparenting, which sounds…fun.
And let’s not even get started on the propensity way away from Iceland for people to call their own pets furbabies in the presence of other humans, and dare them to say something about it.
After this point, I can say no more in good conscience. It’s good enough of a film, even if I didn’t totally get into it, that it deserves not to be spoiled further. The only two points I’ll make are thus: after the revelation, I wasn’t entirely sure if what we saw is what the main couple think they see or whether it’s what’s actually happening, and secondly, when Petur says to his brother “what the fuck are you people doing?”, you could laugh in relief or agreement.
I don’t know that the film totally works for me, especially where the story goes towards the end. I ‘enjoyed’ watching it, for the most part, until then. It was intriguing, and it’s well put together and well acted. There is a lot of CGI used for Ada, but it’s pretty seamless, but you’d have to watch to find out why, because I’m not saying. I could not even really tell you what the flick is, as in, genre-wise, because I could say it starts like a drama, then veers into possibly fantasy, but then ends more in the horror realm, but that could be category error on my part, because maybe this makes more sense to an Icelandic audience, blending these elements in a non-showy way maybe makes a heap of sense culturally.
It’s…a lot. It’s not the best film about adoptive parenting I’ve ever seen (that would be Orphan, by the way), but it’s probably the most Icelandic flick I’ve ever seen, and that has to count for something, doesn’t it?
7 times a generation of stolen lambs will come back to haunt us all out of 10
“What the fuck is this?” – what, indeed - Lamb