The fantastic close to the horror “Lamb”, which leaves Friday in theaters demonstration of professionalism, that an experience. It’s only about twenty minutes of its one-and-three-quarter-hour battery life that sparks interest, thanks to a last-minute twist of industrial strength intelligence. The narrative trickery that sets up the story – and the sense of a setup is palpable throughout – results in a grossly simplified narrative that smacks of cynicism. “Lamb” strives to be admired even as he cuts his characters to pieces on a game board and his actors into puppets.
The subject of “Lamb” is a fantasy planted with meticulous but narrow attention to a realistic context. María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are a young couple on a farm in a remote part of Iceland. They grow crops (mostly potatoes) and raise a few dozen sheep, which live in a barn a short walk from their cozy, relaxed little farm across sloping fields. Their work days consist of driving a tractor, driving sheep through the fields, hauling hay for the sheep, preparing meals, helping the sheep to give birth, tagging and registering new arrivals. But their regular routine is disrupted by the barking of their dog near the barn; the couple enter to see what is happening with the sheep and, looking surprised, find that one of the sheep has given birth without help. Taking the newborn in her arms, María brings him back to the farm, where, wrapped in a blanket, he lives in a metal laundry tub. They give him milk from a bottle and raise him around the house, dragging a crib from a storage area to a space next to their own bed, where the swaddled lamb will live.
Despite glimpses of the awe-inspiring, mountainous Icelandic region and activities at home and on the farm, ‘Lamb’ offers virtually no characterization, no inner life, no substance. There is nothing wrong with a mystery filmed from the outside, in which only the observation of the characters can provide clues. But “Lamb” constructs his characters only as generators of clues; their identity is limited to their function. The gap between what the characters know (or, for that matter, who they are) and what they are shown doing is blatant and frustrating; it makes the film look like pages of written testimony on which there are more bands of black ink than readable text. It is, for example, only a third of the film that the lamb in question is actually revealed to be a hybrid of lamb and human – its head is that of a lamb and its right arm is a leg. lamb’s hairy front, but the rest of its body is humanoid. This fact, instantly known to the couple and weighing on them as some sort of serious matter, is kept secret from viewers.
María and Ingvar name the young sheep Ada (pronounced “ahda”), dress her in sweaters and pants, and raise her as their daughter. A few years go by. Ada is now a calm toddler who walks upright; she does not speak, but she understands what María and Ingvar are saying. Next, the family receives a visitor, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), the foolish brother of Ingvar, a former rock musician, who is brutally thrown from the trunk of a car on their property by a trio of people as María and Ingvar. assume are his creditors. María and Ingvar are astonished that Pétur has returned, that is to say that he lived or visited there; it is never specified, but it is in any case the first time that he goes there in years, and therefore the first time that he meets Ada. His skepticism about the couple’s decision to raise him takes on a particularly bitter and threatening character, for reasons that are only very belatedly and very little suggested to the viewer (but are immediately obvious to the three adults). María and Ingvar fear that Pétur will do something to harm Ada or otherwise get rid of her, and that air of fear and threat, combined with Pétur’s efforts to spark an affair with María, directs the drama. .
There is nothing in the film to suggest what María and Ingvar are thinking. During the first ten minutes, they don’t say a word. When shown reading or writing, the substance is neither seen nor heard. When they finally talk to each other, it is to exchange small talk. They say nothing substantive about their day-to-day lives or immediate concerns – for example, not a word between them about Ada’s unusual form, the practicalities involved, the significance to them of her presence. Something went off the rails in the household (hint: the cradle in the storage room) but, although this is at the forefront of the couple’s minds, even in their activities, the information is not released in the film until very late, and then only as a virtual post-it on the screen. (In a prime example of the director’s cautious and timid way with news, even the names of the protagonists are dropped late in the story.)
The physical labor is equally emblematically distributed. Do María and Ingvar sell the sheep? Butcher the sheep? It is never shown, nor even suggested. Their isolation – do they have friends, other relatives, visitors who might also be surprised at Ada’s unusual form? None that is seen, and the story seems to span around five years. Petur’s skepticism about the couple’s raising Ada is also dispatched in an empty phrase or two. The silences that follow the scanty and purely informative dialogue are breathtaking silences in which the characters are conspicuously emptied, as by directing decree. Even the footage in the film is stunning in retention, offering information in a serenely decorative form and cutting even the best elements – his rare close-ups of Ada and sheep – to merely indicative snippets.
In part, the frustration with the “lamb” is a function of the craftsmanship that obviously went into its making. The problem is, all the obvious thinking has been channeled in a tight way to make sure the story holds its landing. Far from considering the implications and possibilities opened up by its story, the meticulous organization of the film stifles them. Without any end – and without any conceptual or stylistic audacity behind its rarity – “Lamb” seems cut off not only from the inner life of its characters but from the inner life of its creators. Humanoid hybrid films have a moment: Julia Ducournau’s “Titanium” is also currently in theaters, and the director is following the implications of his fantasy premise to the extreme wild; what he lacks in the overt expression of the subjectivity of his characters, he furiously and beautifully makes up for with the teeming inner worlds and visionary imaginations of the director. “Lamb” reduces fantasy to an excuse and imagination to a product. To my surprise, he won the Originality Prize in the “Un Certain Regard” section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This, and its overall praise, offers a grim take on the state of the art house. If he’s to get any awards, give his twisty twenty minutes an Oscar for Best Live-Action Short Film and be done.