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The Language of Silence: Valdimar Jóhannsson on Lamb

You can’t drive a mile in Iceland without passing a pool, a hill, or a cliff that once was the site of a mass execution or other atrocities. The country’s history is grim, but at least the vistas are breathtaking. This contradiction in character, in which Iceland’s antiquity is at odds with the country’s natural beauty, rests at the heart of “Lamb,” a work of haunting idiosyncrasy. 

The movie, directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson in his feature debut, orbits a childless married couple, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and Maria (Noomi Rapace), as they workday in and day out on their remote farm, until one day their pregnant sheep births a lamb-human hybrid. They name the creature Ada and adopt her as their own.

“Lamb” was distributed across North America by A24, a studio known for proliferating such vaunted elevated horror movies as “Hereditary,” and which branded Jóhannsson’s movie as “horror,” too. After premiering at Cannes and opening in theaters earlier this month, critics followed suit, describing “Lamb” in horror terms. Jóhannsson found the label perplexing: “What’s interesting is that now, everyone says “Lamb” is a horror movie. It’s not!” he told Variety in August. And it isn’t. The film reads more like folklore than horror, right up to the final shot.

But the line separating genres is thin, so RogerEbert.com spoke with Jóhannsson about the misconception over "Lamb"'s own genre, whether it matters if viewers consider the film horror or something else, and why, perhaps, his emphasis on silence partly explains why audiences see so many different things in this unique, deeply Icelandic story.

One of the things that struck me, reading about “Lamb” before I saw it, was this idea of it being a horror movie, and critics calling it horror. I recall you having a reaction to that saying, that it's not a horror movie. Are you still seeing a lot of reactions to that effect, calling it a horror movie? How does that sit with you at this point?

I think everybody can just put it in what they want, you know? Because basically it's dealing with many genres, but horror, I don’t think it fits in there. It could be a drama. When we started working on it, our plan was to make an arthouse film, a classical story with this one strange element.

Genre is pretty porous. You can call it, as you said, what you feel like calling it. For you, where does the line exist between the fairytale, the folktale, that “Lamb” is, at least for me, and the horror movie some people see it as?

It’s hard, but I think you're right—it’s like a folktale, or it’s somewhere there. I can understand it, but I don't know where it's horror or when it's something else. What we wanted to do in the beginning was to try to make a film that we really wanted to see, that we felt that we had not seen before. So we never put it in some special genre from the beginning. We didn't know where it would end.

I've heard so many different genres that people are putting it in, and some people are telling me that it's just a comedy. I think it may be the audience who should find something.

You think the audience should see in it what they're going to see in it and you shouldn’t try to put it like in a box for them, to define what it is?

Yeah. Just be open. I trust the audience to find or read out of it what they feel, because I think it should be open. There's nothing that is wrong or right. At least for me, I really like films that I have rewatch or I can't stop thinking about, that I have to somehow find my way through it without getting some explanations from the people that made the film.

You've hit, for me, an important point, which is trusting the audience. That matters a lot to you, giving the audience your trust and not handholding them through the experience? You seem to have faith in the audience's ability to figure the movie out for themselves.

Yeah. I feel that it’s very necessary to do that, because it should also be their experience. There are a lot of things that are not said or that people understand in a different way. Also, cinema is a visual medium where you don't need to explain everything with dialogue. I like when you have to just somehow read body language, or give the animals some feelings or thoughts. For me, that is more interesting.

I think we’re again hitting on an important point here. This is a movie that's told without a lot of dialogue. It's communicated through of silence. Noomi Rapace creates a great figure and turns in such a great performance while actually saying very little. I wonder if that's why there's a varied perspective on what the genre is? The silence invites people to see what they will.

Yeah. From the beginning, when we started working on this, we knew we wanted it to have as little dialogue as possible. I think it fit for this film, to have so much silence, because then you just have to watch, and it gets interesting. That is probably why people are reading such different things out of it, because we are not telling them what they should get from it, you know?

I write a lot about horror. Right now it's a very popular genre. I assume that's also part of it. And that's okay. This movie just feels different to me.

Can I ask you a question?

Yeah!

Did it feel like a horror film for you?

It definitely felt more like a folktale. It reminded me of visiting Iceland and driving around the country and seeing the countryside, six years ago. It's beautiful, but ominous. You can tell there's a lot of history and magic in the country; you can't really miss it. So that's what I got out of it.

In the script, nature was almost like a character in the script, and you’ve been around Iceland, so you see how vulnerable we are against this hostile nature. There are so many stories that come out of this strange nature that you see there. And of course, we worked with the Icelandic folktales—nothing specific. I'm not saying that somehow the creature is something that we came up with, but we took some small elements from the old stories.

Was the relationship between the beauty of the landscape and the country’s dark history essential for telling this story? I’m wondering since you mentioned nature being a character.

Yeah, that was very important. We planned always to shoot when it was overcast, and not try to make it like a postcard, to have it look harsh. What is interesting, and you probably also saw it when you were in Iceland, is that we have this period where it’s always bright outside. For me, it is so scary when everybody can see you and you can see everything, and you can feel some threat from nature. The location of where we were shooting was something that we had to look for for such a long time. I don't know how many times we drove around Iceland to find the right location, because we wanted to be where we could create our own world and put everything into it and then control what was in there. We basically leave that area only, I think, when Pétur is coming,

Yeah, that's the only moment where we're not on that farmstead it. It’s interesting—the way the movie uses the landscape, and I don't know if you've thought about this, you could almost watch this movie without subtitles and still understand everything that's happening. Hearing you speak about the movie, I feel like that was your intention. How hard is that to pull off?

Thank you so much for saying this because I do that often by myself—watch films without dialogue. I really like when you see a film where you can do that. I think part of it is that we tried to just use images to tell the story, like I said before, to have as little dialogue as possible, because cinema is an international language. With cinema, everybody’s seeing the same things. It doesn’t matter where they come from. I'm very glad that you got that feeling.

"Lamb" is now playing in theaters. 

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