Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A weird, unsettling tale — in a good way


   It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.
   If you lived through the ‘70s, you probably recognize this admonition as a line from an often-seen margarine commercial.
   A trivial beginning to a review, yes, but it helps to summarize the lesson that might be gleaned from Lamb, an Icelandic movie that hovers somewhere near the borders of a folk tale.
   Lamb probably should be approached without much foreknowledge, so I’ll try to limit any plot descriptions, which is in keeping with the film's spare approach.
   The success of Lamb has much to do with director Valdimar Johannsson's key stylistic choice, which involves rooting his incredible story in a setting so palpably earthy you almost feel the land's mud and moisture.
   Here’s the story in brief: Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Guonason) and his wife (Noomi Repace) operate a farm in an isolated rural setting. Eventually, we'll learn that the couple lost a child. When a strange lamb is born, Rapace's Maria takes the lamb in her arms and treats it as an infant, even naming it for the lost baby. 
   Johannsson shows us the development of this odd replacement “child,” sometimes giving it human features — a hand, an arm, a rear end, but always maintaining the head of a sheep.
   Initially, I hardly knew whether to laugh or cringe, but gradually, the strange occurrence becomes part of the movie’s world or maybe we just buy in because the film has a way of making us temporarily complicit in the delusions of its characters.
   Eventually,  Ingvar's wayward brother (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) turns up. He has eyes for Rapace’s character and tries to encourage his brother back toward sanity. But he, too, becomes enthralled with little  Ada, who walks upright and has been dressed like a little farm girl.
   And … well … that’s enough.
   At times, Lamb has the eerie strangeness of a horror film. At other times, it feels like a Biblical story about sibling rivalry, and at other times, it doesn’t feel like anything we've seen before.
   For some, these variations may be taken as indecision, but for me, they’re the source of the movie's strength; Johannsson's uneasiness with genre keeps viewers on edge as the story works its way toward a shocking conclusion.
   My opening line makes clear that I view Lamb as a weird cautionary tale, a film so firmly set in the harsh physicality of the Icelandic landscape that it creates an unsettling pull.
   Thanks to Johannsson and his cinematographer Eli Arenson, we’re also asked to examine our assumptions about animal behavior. Do we ever see animals or is nearly everything we think about them colored by anthropomorphism?
   Whatever the case, Johannsson has found ways to turn the gazes of sheep into near accusatory stares from a natural world that we always seem to be trying to control.
   Or maybe I’ve gone too far. Maybe it’s best to just let Lamb work on you and sort it all out later — or not at all. 

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