Valdimar Jóhannsson • Director of Lamb
“You can call Lamb a ‘genre film’, but for me, it’s a visual poem”
by Marta Bałaga
- CANNES 2021: The Icelandic director proves that, despite what we might think, we can never really control Mother Nature
In the Cannes Un Certain Regard title Lamb [+see also:
interview: Valdimar Jóhannsson
film profile], a childless couple, Maria and Ingvar (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason), are suddenly childless no more, but that’s just the beginning of their problems. With the arrival of Ingvar’s deadbeat brother, questioning their new situation, they have to fight for what apparently makes them happy. We talked to the film’s director, Valdimar Jóhannsson.
Cineuropa: Motherhood is such a good subject for films that dabble in the supernatural a little. There is something primal about it.
Valdimar Jóhannsson: Noomi, she was just Maria during the whole shoot – so, so focused. They were both so invested in the film. Everyone always says that this is the strongest feeling there is. It’s true: there is this bond between a mother and a child that’s just special, but I also wanted to show the father, Ingvar.
You don’t reveal the history of this couple too much. Why? They talk about their tractor and everyday chores, but they never really address their pain.
My grandparents were sheep farmers – I spent a huge part of my childhood with them, as we used to live nearby. They had a farm, and their relationship was based on so much respect and love. They did everything together; there was no telling what the “man’s job” was and what the woman’s was. I think I had that in mind when creating this story. Maria and Ingvar, they live a life of routine, but they respect each other, that’s the thing. Maria has a softness about her, but she can also be cold and strong-minded, and Ingvar is just willing to do almost anything for his wife. I hope that people can still feel that something is wrong, however, that there has been a significant loss in the past. Me and Sjón, my screenwriter [and an internationally acclaimed author], we decided to have so few dialogues, also because people are always trying to read animals’ minds and figure out what they are feeling, but I thought it would be interesting to do the same with people. They speak as little as possible in the film.
Your producers, Hrönn Kristinsdóttir and Sara Nassim, said that it took a while to find such an isolated farm. Wherever you look, there is nothing there!
In Iceland, during lambing season, we have two hours of darkness – we are always awake. This time period gets a bit dream-like after a while. I don’t know, maybe I just wanted nature to be like a character in the film? When you are that isolated, it’s probably scarier to be able to see everything – when it’s dark, you don’t know what’s hiding out there. There is a mystery about it, when you do see. You can get more afraid when it’s bright.
It’s almost funny how quickly everyone accepts the new situation, which we are not going to spoil – even Ingvar’s brother. Why didn’t you want them to question it more?
I imagined it would happen like that. If someone were to come into your life like that, you would accept it very quickly, even though it’s so strange. Also, with the brother, he is doing things that the audience might not necessarily approve of. But it was important that you get a chance to actually like him. I didn’t want to have him as this villain, someone you just immediately reject. He makes mistakes, but they are still a family. I used to spend a lot of time with sheep farmers, and when a lamb or any animal is born and there is something wrong, they don’t let it live. In a way, that’s what happens with Pétur. His initial reaction is understandable, as it comes from what has been done for centuries.
It makes you think of how we treat nature in general, too – we just take. We are takers, just like this couple.
We think we are the rulers of it all, but we are so small and insignificant! We could never control nature, not completely. This aspect of the story wasn’t really planned, but I am glad that people are thinking about it when watching the film – it’s such an important topic right now. This whole question: “What are we going to do with our future?”
This is such a classical tale, with just one surrealist element, and I think it’s good that it’s simple like this. We always wanted to make an arthouse film, even though we took part in some genre initiatives when financing Lamb. So many people ask me if I am a horror fan now. But I didn’t see it as a horror. You can call it a “genre film”, but for me, it’s a visual poem.
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