Out in the hinterlands of Iceland, a married couple is grieving. Some time ago, they lost a child. It has created a noticeable rift in their relationship, even if they continue to spend every waking moment together on the ranch. They are shepherds, and in this remote landscape, all they have is each other. Each other, and the sheep.
A little bit of patience goes a long way in Lamb, the debut feature from Icelandic filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson. You know something is amiss from minute one but what that is takes time to develop. Using mostly static frames and rigorous compositions, Jóhannsson and cinematographer Eli Arenson disarm while Þórarinn Guðnason’s score provides the ominous drone of fate marching toward Maria (Noomi Rapace), Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), and the newest member of the flock, a little lamb named Ada.
How Ada comes to Maria and Ingvar is a story best left to Lamb. But Ada does come and fills in the gulf between Maria and Ingvar. When Ingvar’s brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), sees what’s going on, he has one question: What is this? Happiness, Ingvar responds.
How Pétur lands on the ranch is another mystery best left to the movie. Lamb has many. It’s not incorrect to say that the great whatsit at the heart of Lamb is supernatural, but it’s not correct either. It’s possibly primeval. Early in the movie, Ingvar reads in the paper that time travel has been discovered. Nobody’s done it yet, but they’ve figured how to do it. Noodle on that when you drive home from Lamb.
Marriage, and the distance between, makes for great drama in horror and horror in great dramas. Lamb is somewhere in between, a slow burner of domestic fracture and doubling with a tickle of the supernatural. Possession, newly restored and headed to theaters next week, takes all of that and cranks it up to 11.
Possession also revolves around a lost child, this time a miscarriage in the Berlin subway with Anna (Isabelle Adjani), giving one of the most bonkers performances in all of cinema. Her husband, Mark (Sam Neill), is a spy, and while he’s been away, Anna has been having an affair with German bon vivant Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). And he might not be the only one. There’s something about Anna’s behavior that seems a little off. Then a lot off. Then, get the hell out of dodge.
You can probably guess that with a title like Possession, there’s something afoot. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away. There’s little wonder why critics and programmers steered clear of the movie and governments tried to censor it. What little audience found Possession in the early ’80s saw a butchered version that made considerably less sense than Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski intended.
But Possession is magnificent: It is a movie of total conviction and little regard for anything other than the emotions it’s trying to convey. Zulawski set his story in Berlin, giving an already sumptuous film of breakdown a spectacular visual metaphor of the Berlin Wall twisting its way through an aging and soot-soaked city. Bruno Nuytten’s cinematography is so anarchic, so visceral, you feel mad just watching it.
Nothing in Possession looks inviting. Ditto for Lamb: With a deep valley setting surrounded by craggy peaks, little here is bucolic. These are not love songs but laments between broken parties in a world up to its eyeballs in loss. They’ll make for one heck of a double feature if you’ve got the stomach for it. Welcome to the horror season.
On the bill: Lamb opens October 8 in theaters. The new 4K restoration of Possession is available now via the Metrograph’s virtual cinema (metrograph.com) and comes to theaters on October 15.