Sneaking up on the Karlovy Vary Film Festival audience following its Cannes debut, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Icelandic-Swedish-Polish drama “Lamb” has some surprises in store. Luckily, according to its first-time director, the reviews of the film that sees Noomi Rapace as a woman living in complete isolation with her husband in rural Iceland, dreaming of becoming a mother, has been largely spoiler-free.
“I felt they were fair,” he says. “They were just teasing something, mentioning ‘some kind of a creature.’ I remember some were just saying you should know as little as possible before seeing the film and I think that it’s true.”
Produced by Go to Sheep, Black Spark Film & TV and Madants with New Europe Film Sales and A24 on board, its mix of the supernatural and the mundane certainly drew attention, but Jóhannsson doesn’t see himself as a genre filmmaker.
“What’s interesting is that now, everyone says ‘Lamb’ is a horror movie. It’s not! I am a little surprised by that, because it was never my plan. To me, it’s an arthouse film,” he says, also mentioning Ali Abbasi’s “Border” about a custom officer suddenly discovering the reason behind, among other things, her extraordinary sense of smell. “They probably had to deal with the same problem. All you need is this one strange element.”
“Border,” which went on to win Cannes’ Un Certain Regard prize in 2018 and scored Oscar nod for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling, drew laughs during the first screenings due to its explosive sex scene, but Jóhannsson wasn’t afraid of similar reactions.
“I knew it was necessary to have some comic relief. The first chapter of the film is very heavy,” he says. “When ‘Lamb’ was screened in Cannes, people started to laugh even before the joke was out. I realized they just didn’t know how to react. Maybe they have never seen anything like this before? So yes, you can laugh, you can cry or you can just be silent,” he jokes.
Inspired by Icelandic folklore, Jóhannsson decided to embrace his country’s practical approach to magic, elves and everything in between in the film, with the main couple rarely questioning what is coming their way or into their home.
“I know many people who claim to have seen elves and ghosts. I haven’t, but it would be ridiculous not to believe them. Why would I just reject it?,” he wonders. “When I was a child, it was just a part of our life. We have all heard these folktales – it’s who we are. In Iceland, we are surrounded by this harsh nature and whenever a volcano erupts, there is nothing we can do. It’s just nice to believe in something sometimes.”
With Rapace joined by Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Jóhannsson wanted to show a relationship of two equals in the film, remembering his own grandparents, also sheep farmers.
“It was a beautiful relationship, never stained by conflict. At least not that I know of! I think they were ahead of their time in that way,” he says, praising Rapace’s commitment to the role of a woman dealing with grief but also fighting for a chance to be a parent again.
“We worked so closely and she was just Maria. It was hard for her to go back to Noomi. It’s funny because so many people come up to me after the screenings, praising the animals: the cat, the dog. ‘And the sheep, she is so sad! How did you do it?’ My actors are not saying that much in the film, either. You start to see them as animals too, focusing on their body language instead.”
Although “Lamb” found success in Cannes, scooping the Un Certain Regard’s Prize of Originality – and a posthumous win for Panda the sheepdog at Palm Dog Awards – Jóhannsson, currently developing his new project, will most likely opt for a different route next time around.
“It’s still in very early stages, but with ‘Lamb’ we just made the film we wanted to see. We want to keep doing that, instead of trying to do something similar.”