Fantastic Fest 2021: LAMB is a Patient and Primal Exploration of Parenthood

Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason are spellbinding as farm bound parents who take a new creature into their care

Isolated in the Icelandic countryside on their sprawling estate, María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) eke out their days tending to their livestock and crops. The outside world hints at monumental progress–time travel is now theoretically possible. Ingvar doesn’t see the point in seeing the future ahead, content with living in the everyday of their current experience. He hasn’t given a thought to the flip side of this possibility–to return to the past–but María’s quick answer reveals she has. What’s more, that it’s something she’s thought about for a long time while Ingvar seems to have buried the past outright. The tension exposed lingers across every scene in Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb (Dýrið), like an imprint in a deathbed or a dust outline around a vacant picture frame. When the film finally arrives at its central conceit, the arrival of a cuddly new member of María and Ingvar’s family, Jóhannsson’s absurdity augments the aching sincerity behind this couple’s crushing loss, the emotional void filled by the role of parenthood, and what lengths we’ll go through to never feel that loss again.

Writer-director Jóhannsson maintains a strict grasp on the languid pace of Lamb throughout. With stunning tableaux of Icelandic mountain ranges and dew-strewn fields and a clinical view of the harsh yet necessary routines of farm life, much of Lamb feels like a Scandinavian successor to the films of Bela Tarr (who mentored Jóhannsson in film school, and executive produced Lamb). It’s in these meticulously captured sequences that the buried anguish of María and Ingvar comes to light–while tilling fields, repairing tractors, and birthing livestock are essential to their mental health as much as they are vital to keeping the lights running. Co-written by Jóhannsson and author Sjón (who also co-wrote Robert Eggers’ next feature, The Northman), I was caught off guard that the film was largely dialogue-free during the stretches where it’s solely María and Ingvar — but this decision speaks to not how this couple’s relationship has eroded but thrived beyond typical human recognition in their isolation. Having weathered literal and emotional storms together–Lamb realizes the need to express such feelings is so unnecessary.

Rapace and Guðnason are wholly committed to realizing this relationship onscreen, sharing a tenderness that blossoms as they take care of the new being under their charge. While similar creature features have actors who feel they need to overact to compensate for performing against a tennis ball, both actors radiate pure parental affection against what was revealed to be actual lambs, human babies, and eventually a skillfully designed combination of the two. As previously noted in one of the opening sequences, Rapace and Guðnason do diverge in how they choose to protect their adopted daughter–with Ingvar acting as the more conciliatory of the two to maintain a fragile peace, and Rapace quick to resort to whatever means necessary. As a result, the relationship between these leads feels dynamic and emotionally charged throughout Lamb, keeping the film moving at a measured pace even as further patience is required of the audience to piece together the film’s more understated and ambiguous moments.

The aforementioned VFX are truly a wonder to behold, used sparingly but without much obfuscation or trickery by the filmmakers. It’s crucial that for Lamb to work at all, the audience needs to be able to imprint on this creature as much as María and Ingvar do–not only to be convinced of the reality of Ada, but in the reality of what María and Ingvar do to defend their roles as her adopted parents. To keep it short–Ada is such an adorable creature, with her reflective lamb/human eyes filled with endless wonder and curiosity. Early on, she’s aware she doesn’t quite fit in–and is suspicious of any visitors that do arrive at the farm, notably Ingvar’s ex-rocker brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). These hyper-aware emotions are an effective beacon of empathy for the audience–telegraphing how one wrong response could send this family’s lovingly crafted relationship tragically crashing down.

Which speaks to what I took away most from Lamb–how we develop that child-parent bond, and how María and Ingvar questionably exploit that attachment for their own self-therapeutic ends. It’s one of the few developments in Lamb that goes as far as to get an in-scene explanation, rooted in earlier heartbreak and loss. Much of their parenting, as is everyone’s, is done in the bubble of their farm, with María and Ingvar slowly learning to acknowledge their own past trauma and move on as they teach Ada about the beauty of the world. But how much of their attachment to Ada is for their own benefit, rather than raising this non-verbal lamb-child themselves? Throughout, the business of raising Ada feels increasingly akin to María and Ingvar’s deliberate dedication to their farm work, albeit with a more emotionally gratifying bent.

It’s a meditative conceit that provokes Jóhannsson’s audience throughout–even more so when some of its more fantastical elements go unexplained–whether it be an auspicious Christmas birth or more understated ties to Icelandic mythology. Lamb is a film that invites its audience to empathize with the broken people at its core as much as they do with the cuddly creation that’s the focus of its marketing–and to acknowledge the complex and conflicting emotions at the heart of a primal parental bond.

Lamb had its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 25th. It hits theaters on October 8th courtesy of A24.

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