Contains some light spoilers, though I try not to give too much away.
At first glance, Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson, 2021) is a film about grief so powerful it conjures the past into the present.
Sheep farmers Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) sit at their kitchen table, and Ingvar remarks, “They’re saying time travel is possible now.” They chat about the practicalities for a moment, with Ingvar continuing, “Not that I’m in a hurry to see the future.” He’s satisfied with his present. The camera cuts to Maria, and a pregnant pause hangs in the air before she mentions the possibility of going back in time. We can see they both have the same thought — the same painful memory — on their minds, some time to which Maria would like to return.
When the little lamb, Ada, arrives in the couple’s life, it’s reminiscent of Jan Švankmajer’s Little Otik (2000). Otik features an infertile woman whose desire for a child is so pronounced she wills a tree stump to life as a voracious, vegetal baby. Similarly, Maria and Ingvar’s grief over what we assume is a lost child appears to summon Ada into existence.
However, Lamb subtly undermines this interpretation at multiple points, even before the closing revelation. The film begins with an epilogue from a sheep’s perspective. The camera moves through a white-out snow storm, looking out through her eyes as she navigates back to the barn, breathing heavily on the soundtrack. Finally, she makes it home, collapsing on the floor of the pen as the radio wishes us a “Merry Christmas” and announces the evening prayer. She lies exhausted, panting, and the other sheep gaze out the open barn door into the storm.
What did this sheep endure out in the storm? Is this Ada’s mother? Later, a sheep we know is Ada’s mother bleats at the house’s windows and doors, and we can’t help but feel that she’s asking for her daughter back. Sheep drive as much of the film’s action as the humans, and the bleating of Ada’s mother is as much an overt expression of grief than what we see from Maria and Ingvar.
The film continually features thresholds — windows, doors, mirrors, even birth and death are kinds of thresholds. The camera constantly looks through doorways and windows, often from the vantage point of one of the film’s sheep (either literally or by placing the camera at a low height).
Ultimately, I would argue the film is less about grief and more about crossing thresholds that aren’t meant to be crossed. Ada’s own existence muddles boundaries, and while she’s adorable in her little sweaters and the flower crown Maria creates for her, should Maria and Ingvar have brought Ada out of the sheep’s pen and into their home? In the spirit of horror, their transgression can’t lead to a happy ending.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.