Lamb ★★★★★

It was interesting to watch this so soon after having seen Titane — another film about the capacity of a bereft parent to bond with someone or something that’s not entirely human. Lamb’s themes also triangulate in a provocative way with those of Ducournau’s previous film, Raw — an exploration of the labile boundary between the human and the animal. On a more abstract, reflexive — I guess I might as well say “meta” — level, I’d propose that it also becomes a film about the changing conditions of cinematic storytelling itself, as the film’s extensive and seamless integration of CGI into an otherwise simple, naturalistic tale of tragedy begins to call into question the boundary between reality and fantasy in our increasingly virtualized world. 

To link these three films, and to include by extension a host of others that exhibit a similar set of concerns, I’m going to offer up the category of “fabulist cinema.” I want the term to retain the double meaning that’s already embedded in the common usage of the word “fabulist.” First, there’s the value-neutral sense which refers merely to one with an interest in constructing fables, or, structurally minimalist narratives that aim to capture some “universal” or transhistorical aspect of human social experience. By departing from the conventions of realism, these films aim to expose some deeper level of psychological or anthropological “truth” through the use of an explicitly fantastic, symbolist aesthetic. In this respect, I’m thinking primarily of the resurgent interest in folk horror, exemplified by films like The Witch, Midsommar, We Are Who We Are, and the recent Netflix series, Midnight Mass

But I also want to preserve the derogatory connotation of “fabulism,” in the sense that when we call someone a “fabulist,” we generally mean  that they’re a liar. It’s the term’s applicability to the Trump-era plague of disinformation which I think helps to explain why so many filmmakers have come to this renewed interest in the nature of mythic, fantastic storytelling. Folk horror, when it’s at its best, is about why people come to believe the crazy and dangerous things they believe. And in all of the films I’ve mentioned so far — Lamb included — the answer lies in some basic need to forge meaning out of the pain and chaos that comes from trying to protect an insular world that’s being increasingly threatened by the intrusion of outside forces. If this is starting to sound like a diagnosis of the populist appeal of a cult-leader like Trump or the attraction of mythic, explanatory conspiracy fabulations like those proffered by Q-Anon of Fox News, then you’ve already anticipated where I’m trying to go with this. 

The insular world of Lamb is perhaps the most restrictive of any of those films which express some version of this impulse. It would be a mistake, though, to think that it’s limited to just the human couple, bound together as they are in their frozen non-expression of grief over the loss of their only child. The opening scenes include a much larger cast of non-human characters — the cat, the dog, and chorus of sheep in the barn — all of “whom” are shot with the same lighting and framing techniques which we’d ordinarily associate with the introduction of significant supporting players. 

But in these same establishing shots, we’re also introduced to that elusive, uncanny effect that comes from the almost imperceptible use of CGI to humanize their “expressions.” We can recognize this disorienting undertow from the growing genre of digitally-anthropomorphic animal films, from the charming Babe movies to the recent super-creepy remake of The Call of the Wild. In all of these films, the reality-distorting power of CGI is deployed to recreate the natural world in our own flattering image. There’s an egocentric animism at work in all of them which functions to erase the Otherness of the Real in favor of a more comforting, totalized version of the Imaginary, in which every aspect of the non-human world becomes merely a reflection of our own narcissistically-driven symbolic systems. (For a compelling screed against the tragicomic hubris of that project, I’d recommend giving Werner Herzog’s documentary, Grizzly Man, another watch.) 

Lamb takes this same impulse — that quintessentially human desire to project ourselves onto the pre-symbolic dimension of the unsignifying Real — and maps it onto the unacknowledged narcissism of parenting. Like Titane, Lamb becomes a story of how parental “love” can serve to obscure the monstrosity of its adored, idealized object. Both Adrien and Ada become the blank screens upon which the desires of their adoptive caretakers are projected. But in the case of Titane, what’s inhuman in Adrien is far more horrific and obscene than what’s inhuman in dear little Ada, and in that film’s morally dubious “redemptive” ending, we’re left with a grotesque image of what’s left of “the human” adapting itself to the most dystopian aspects of a technology-dominated world. Although the “revenge of nature’s Otherness” that provides the closure to Lamb’s version of the same miraculous birth fable might seem more conservative, it’s actually a more optimistic take on and, I’d argue, morally salubrious corrective to our digitally enhanced attempts to refashion reality to suit our unconscious desires. 

“Fabulist cinema,” then, is meant to designate that growing body of films which attempt to engage with and/or formulate a response to the massive epistemic shift that we’re all currently living though. If all those liberal, Enlightenment era institutions which had previously regulated the boundaries between truth and fiction, reason and superstition, scientific knowledge and religious belief are rapidly corroding, what I’m calling “fabulist cinema” seeks to probe the historical and psychic foundations of those very structural-symbolic divisions. To the extent that the algorithmically-controlled virtualization of reality has impaired our ability to understand or even acknowledge the material conditions which still impose limits on the fulfillment of our every whim, these films use the tools of myth to try to capture a comprehensible image of “that which resists” this globalizing project.

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