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  • Sasho Pshenko

Lamb and the Double-Edged Sword of Ambitious Filmmaking

Valdimar Jóhannsson’s debut thriller Lamb (2021) has been hailed by critics for its bleak cinematography and strange, dreadful suspense. Sasho Pshenko acknowledges the film's many achievements but finds in its shortcomings both disappointment and implications for the creation of artistic masterpieces more generally.

Lamb (2021) Valdimar Jóhannsson debut feature
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Still from Lamb (2021), A24

As someone who regularly writes and thinks about books and films, I am almost obliged to constantly revisit my own standards for what makes a good work of art. As a result of various circumstances, my criteria have noticeably altered in the past few years, so, understandably, my interpretative curiosity has been directed at two parallel objects of analysis: the books and films I’m supposed to think about, and my own process of thinking about and/or judging them. That said, I was recently prompted to wonder whether a single film (to say artwork in this case would be too broad – I will elaborate on this a bit further) can simultaneously serve as an example of both well-executed filmmaking, and of a botched misinterpretation of the theme and topic that it tried to capture.

Not to be misunderstood, a decline in quality would be nothing new when it comes to both a single work of art, and to multiple creations of a single artist. Especially in longer formats, such as TV series, franchises, or novel cycles, it is a rather common observance. Properties can gradually lose quality as a result of multiple factors – a change of writers/showrunners, external influences, loss of “inspiration,” etc.. Yet, what is not seen as often is a decline which is steep and jarring because it occurs in the span of a single, two-hour long film. Can a single feature manage to stitch and glue together two separate visions of its own theme – one incredibly good, nuanced and complex, the other bizarrely simplified, rushed and bland?

Apparently it can. The example to support this answer was, at the same time, the film which originally inspired me to ask the question in the first place – Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb (2021). A simple story about a lonely couple (María and Ingvar, played respectively by Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) living in mountainous pastures, who adopt a strange, human-lamb hybrid baby, Lamb is an, almost, exemplary film when it comes to building tension, establishing complex themes, and integrating all the intricate narrative elements and beats into a breathtaking cinematographic vision of the fictional world. For the duration of most of the film, it keeps surpassing itself in terms of dynamism, momentum, and thrill. And then, the final 10 minutes happen. Not only do they manage to drag the whole thing steeply downhill (pun intended), but they also manage to retrospectively degrade every single good thing about the film which was established previously.

So, how does Lamb succeed in doing all of these things in a runtime of fewer than 110 minutes? Even more importantly, what are those particular things which the film does right (and then wrong), and how are its philosophical and aesthetic themes tackled? Finally, what are the implications of all this? In order to answer these questions, I will examine, in detail, first the “good,” and then the “bad” aspects of the film.

Lamb is kind of like a modern fairy tale. It presents an isolated world, far removed from any firm reference to reality and, because of its sparse dialogue, we are left to wonder about how common certain “strange” occurrences may be in the film’s world. What we aren’t left to wonder about, though, is that the film divides said world, ethically, into two halves – the humans (civilization, simplicity, clarity of desire and intention) and nature (wilderness, chaos, unpredictability and beauty).

In this magical world, we are introduced to the fairy-tale-like parents without offspring, who live alone in the hills, surrounded by breathtaking natural landscapes and the different sorts of animals they keep – a house cat, a shepherd dog, and a flock of sheep. The couple’s silent, monotone way of life and their lack of communication points towards their dissatisfaction and the exhausted state of their marriage. Only later is it revealed to us that, some time ago, they had lost a child during childbirth. This doesn’t, however, detract from the mystical atmosphere established beforehand, nor does it reveal too much about our protagonists. Rather, it further expands the mystery, by pointing out how much we don’t know about these characters. And this is for the better, since one of the film’s main strengths is the feeling of secrecy and ambiguity which surrounds everyone and everything. The humans, while presented as rather ordinary, are still much more steeped in the unknown than we would expect.

The best example of this is the figure of the uncle, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who only enters the picture much later in the story – in fact, at a very crucial moment. His ambiguous behavior, his obviously problematic past, the tense relationship between him and his brother’s wife and, finally, his simultaneously hostile and caring tendencies towards Ada (the lamb-girl), present him as a sort of bridge between the relative normality of humanity and the mysterious, almost supernatural realm of nature. Yet, as we see throughout the development of the film, his unpredictability is, in fact, wholly situated within the context of human civilization. We, as viewers, may have been wrong to consider the humans to be clear, normal, and understandable in the framework of the film. Even they had been hiding deadly secrets.

Yet, not nearly as many as those harbored by the sublime, vertigo-inducing pastures and the eerie, discordant flocks of sheep. The “nature” aspect of the film is usually represented by two separate, but connected, realms: the outdoor landscapes and the animals. The landscapes are the first direct element through which nature’s superiority and terror is presented. The film’s brilliant cinematography manages to humble the human figures, roaming around the hills and valleys, in the presence of the magnificent reliefs which surround them. Even when the weather is nice and the setting is expected to be peaceful, the film successfully imposes an unsettling feeling, as if the grandiosity of the wide expanse has, literally, taken the breath away from both the characters and the viewers. The characters’ agencies seem tiny and infantile in comparison. Moreover, during many of the film’s more important scenes, the surroundings are obscured by thick fog, which, more commonly than the green meadows, suggests something hidden, mysterious and, possibly, sinister.

And it is in conjunction with this fog that we are introduced to the sheep. Now, sheep and goat eyes have been a staple in horror films for years – their horizontal pupils, often associated with demons and the supernatural, have functioned as a clear indicator of something inhuman. Lamb doubles down on this and takes it even further. Multiple close-ups of sheep’s faces, superimposed onto wide shots of the teeming flocks, loudly baa-ing, seeing and knowing something on the other side of the camera, something beyond our human comprehension, is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of this film. The sheep’s haphazard behavior, their unfocused gaze, the uncontrollable and irrational tendencies of the herd are amplified by both the cinematography and the sound design, suggesting to us, the viewers, that something unpredictable is “brewing” underneath the calm, everyday life that María and Ingvar are leading. That something comes to be embodied in the “gift” that is Ada – the human-lamb baby hybrid. Birthed by a sheep, by an unknown father, this baby is taken as a blessing by the human pair. One need not be a genius to realize that a blessing of that sort must come with a price.

The establishment of this situation is, arguably, the film’s strongest aspect. Lamb is not a horror film, not even an “artsy” horror film. It is a supernatural drama. However, it is also a masterclass in building tension and unsettling the audience. For such a calm, slow film, even the most peaceful moments seem uncomfortably insidious. A mere shot of one or several sheep is enough to let us know that something isn’t right. Not that the sheep themselves are necessarily malevolent; rather, they imply something which exceeds human understanding, something belonging to the domain of nature, hence, something beyond María’s and Ingvar’s grasp. Yet, the pair take a part of that something (Ada), and pay no respect to the “fertile ground” which birthed it. Disaster looms on the horizon. And its advance is terrifically captured.

Ada’s birth mother – a simple sheep – starts to “stalk” the house where her daughter is, following her everywhere, even, somehow, breaking into the house and kidnapping her. On paper, these anthropomorphic traits, attributed to an animal, seem like a typical example of bad writing, yet in the context of the film – not considering the ending – they only intensify the mystery.

The number of questions and the feeling of dread only get stronger when María murders Ada’s birth mother. Both narratively and visually, this scene figures as one of the most sinister and poignant moments in the film. The shot of María dragging the sheep’s limp body by the horn, accompanied by the tense, yet subtle score, alludes to the fact that the woman showed ingratitude towards the same nature that rewarded her, committing an ultimate sin of sorts. The worst part is that the consequences of this act are completely unpredictable, as, at this point, we don’t yet know what this nature is capable of, nor do we know its exact agenda. Which is why Pétur’s entrance in the story – that takes place at this very moment – would immediately be taken as a retributive act of nature; will he “avenge” the crime? What will his function in the story be? Is he on the side of the humans, or aligned with the inhuman?

And, on that note, is Ada herself human or animal? The strange child keeps showing ambiguous traits. She is incapable of human speech, yet acts like a human child. When offered food she instinctively tries to grab it with her hand, but is also capable of grazing it directly with her mouth. More importantly, does she have feelings? Is she attached to María and Ingvar, or is she a simple personification of that sublime nature’s will, handed to the human couple only to punish them for their transgressions? Every time Ada is shown on screen, the viewer is tasked with balancing the scales and interpreting her true position in the film’s ethical outlook. Because, interestingly, whenever she, or any other animal (the cat, the dog, the other sheep) shows certain anthropomorphic tendencies, the film instantly reminds us of the chaotic underbelly hidden by the mysterious landscapes and pastures – the domain of the sheep, their inarticulate screaming, the bizarre patterns of their movement, etc.

One is, then, left to wonder: is this hybrid creature normal within the framework of nature? Is it a separate species, unknown to mankind, or is it truly a miracle, an exceptional occurrence exclusively aligned with the human couple’s desires? Yet, is it really a gift? Maybe it’s a curse! But then, the couple seemed quite ordinary at the beginning. If it’s a gift or a curse, what did they do to bring this onto themselves? Furthermore, how is it connected to the secrets harbored by the humans? Who is the uncle? Did something happen between him and María? Maybe it was Ingvar who sexually abused the sheep-mother, hence the birth of Ada. What philosophical domain is the film trying to explore?

So many questions. If only they had remained unanswered. Lamb is at its best when it functions as a mysterious fairy tale. It thrives when it doesn’t provide enough information, thus intensifying the uncanny expectation of a tragic outcome. Had it remained as ambiguous as it started, it could’ve been a great film that questions the relationship between humans and nature’s grander schemes, reaching far beyond their understanding. It could’ve drawn attention to the complexity of desire – one never knows what one truly wants and, even when they do, they never know what price they have to pay to get it. It could’ve prompted many more questions, had it not contained those final ten minutes. But it did contain them.

At the end we meet Ada’s true father – a sheep-human hybrid monster, kind of like herself, but scarier. He creeps up on the human family, steals their gun (???) and proceeds to shoot Ingvar to death with it, before taking Ada and disappearing in the misty meadows. So, it turns out that it wasn’t really that much of a supernatural mystery after all – Ada was neither a gift, nor a curse, she was simply a member of a different species, unknown to humans. Nature wasn’t the one creepily lurking, the father-monster was. And what was his agenda? Well, apparently, a very bland, by-the-numbers revenge for the death of Ada’s sheep-mother. And why would he want that? The sheep was never implied to be his partner, wife, or lover. As far as we could gather, the monster-father attacked the sheep barn on Christmas night and randomly assaulted one of the animals. He never returned, never cared to visit the pregnant animal, nor show any concern for his daughter.

Still he did come back to avenge the sheep-mother, and not just in any, “animalistic” way. He specifically had to shoot Ingvar in the exact same way in which María shot the sheep. But why would he do that? Why would he care? Had he cared, he would’ve protected both the sheep and Ada a long time ago.

The true answer is that even the film itself doesn’t know why. Suddenly, at the flip of a switch, both the characters and the themes transform into a one-dimensional parody of themselves. Monster-father is the personification of the nature which humans abused, so he has to pay them back in blood. Don’t kill, lest you get killed in return. A heart-shattering message to all the murderous people out there in the world. Be good to animals, or they may mutate and shoot your partner with a gun. Subtle storytelling at its finest.

Dragged away by her biological father, Ada is revealed to have been fully human (psychologically), after all. The only strange thing about her was her appearance. Her ambiguous, passive behavior was not a foreshadowing of some sinister forces on the doorstep – powers that were invisible to the simple human eye – it was an expression of her weak, meek character.

On the topic of weak characters, the humans don’t fare much better. Ingvar turns out to be precisely the flat, one-dimensional character he was presented as at the beginning. The uncle left the film randomly, without serving any narrative purpose. María turned into a stereotypical mother-killer plot-device who, at the end of the film, lost everything she had. Divine justice? Hardly warranted.

Pétur’s threat – that he would reveal to Ada (a toddler) that María killed her birth-mother, unless María sleeps with him – seemed strange even when it was spoken for the first time. Calling the unnamed sheep “Ada’s mother” and implying that a non-verbal toddler would be aware of the fact that it is adopted by humans, while being born by a sheep, seemed far-fetched to begin with, but by the end, having turned out to be inconsequential, only emphasizes the absurdities that populated this film. Retrospectively, most of the plot points function as melodramatic secrets, like beats taken from some low-grade soap opera. Every explanation given is, literally, the worst explanation possible, executed in a rushed manner. The things that weren’t explained figure not as intentional mysteries, but rather as accidental plot-holes.

Overall, one gets the impression that the writers of the film came up with a single interesting idea (human-lamb adopted by childless family), but they didn’t know how to develop it and what to do with it, so they tried to integrate it into an extremely uninspired didactic story. They tried to prolong the final reveal as much as possible, hence the beautiful shots, the long silent scenes and the unbearable tension. They weren’t building towards a well-constructed climax, they were evading the inevitable. And when the inevitable arrived, in the form of the monster-father, it toppled down the entire film, just like how María’s happiness dramatically collapsed.

What this entire messy situation illustrates, at the end of the day, are two things. Firstly, there’s always a chance that an author might miscomprehend their own work. Pessimistic as it might sound, most of the time creators aren’t aware of all the intricacies and nuances that exist within their works and this shows when they try to “tie things up” in a neat manner. More commonly, this comes to the forefront with sequels to successful films, for example. The original’s complexity is revealed to have been nothing more than a fluke when the same writer/director produces an extremely simple and crude story as a follow-up. This observation is nothing new, true, but people, regardless of how experienced they are, do tend to become fascinated by an artist when they discover a work of theirs that seems to touch upon some perennial questions in a nuanced and well-thought-out way. Disappointment almost always follows once one realizes that the most thought-provoking aspects of the work found themselves there by chance.

Conversely, the fact that an art work’s intellectual potential exceeds the author’s intentions can be quite the uplifting revelation too. For readers, viewers and, overall, people who appreciate the aesthetic and philosophical potential of art, the notion that true gems can emerge even from the most unsuspecting of people, is nothing short of a religious miracle – akin to Ada’s birth, for example. The art work usually exists in and for itself, and can be reconfigured as a different narrative with every individual reading (by different readers or by the same reader on multiple occasions). Literary theorist Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” postulate has already become part of popular culture, and for good reason – a given piece of art, whether a film, a book, a painting, or a musical composition, can develop on its own and drift universes away from the mind that conceived it. The first 90% of Lamb is a testament to this. An exemplary work of subdued horror and brimming tension, it leaves a hopeful taste in one’s mouth, even after the heavy dosage of vinegar-sour camp.

Thus, masterpieces can spring up from literally any place, at any time, regardless of who wrote or directed them, regardless of what the original intention behind them was, and of how, originally, they were supposed to be executed. This is, among other things, what allows for the existence of good collaborative artworks. For example, good commercial films would be impossible to make if this wasn’t the case. A commercial film is usually the product of more than 50 minds – screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, cinematographers, etc. None of these people share the exact same vision of the film they are working on, yet, when it does come out, looking as coherent as if it was the creation of a single mastermind, the diverse viewpoints of the people that made it seem to align. If there is anything miraculous, anything really in line with the mysterious, unpredictable world of the sheep illustrated in Lamb, then it is precisely this. The wild, chaotic potential of good art to emerge even when least expected.

Artists, please don’t try to tame it. We’ve seen what that looks like. ▲

Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.

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