Oct 29, 2021

Dýrið / Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson, 2021)

Once upon a time, on an island far away, a childless couple, María and Ingvar, spent their peaceful days on a sheep farm. They rarely spoke to each other, but the spark of love twinkled in both of their eyes. More than anything in the world, they wished for a baby girl, and one fateful day their wish came true (well, sort of) – a sheep #3115 lambed a mutant ewe whom they named Ada and adopted as their own...

Taking cues from the folk tales of yore, debuting director Valdimar Jóhannsson and his co-writer – poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón – take a deep dive into the murky waters of parental anxieties, as well as of forced consolation, and emerge with a unique black pearl. The duo also addresses wicked ways of Mother Nature whose reaction to an insult adds another layer of bizarreness (not to be discussed here, so as not to spoil the fun) to the already odd proceedings. Their grimly sweet, mystically absurd, bleakly humorous and decidedly taciturn story unfolds at a finely measured pace, and allows – along with the spacious setting – its handful of characters to breathe freely and fully. Although archetypal on the surface, they do come across as believable, emotionally resonant and inevitably flawed humans, partly by virtue of outstanding low-key performances from Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, as well as their interaction with a disturbingly cute creature.

And Jóhannsson is in firm control over virtually every aspect of his inaugural feature, particularly in terms of establishing the right mood, and making sure the tonal shifts are hard to detect. Assisted by the haunting, brooding, drone-heavy score composed by Þórarinn Guðnason and Eli Arenson’s astonishing wide-screen frames which capture the breathtaking grandeur of Iceland’s remote countryside, he pulls you into a slightly distorted reality of a quiet domestic drama draped in the veil of faux / silly happiness, and underscored by a lingering sense of foreboding. When the ominous presence finally materializes into a horrific surprise, it is too late for the surrogate parents to redeem themselves, whereby the viewer is left to contemplate over the unanswered questions...

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