A Pastoral Tale of Ovine Surrogacy True Crime

by Sophie Lewis |

N.B. This short review was originally posted on Sophie’s patreon, reproutopia, which we encourage you to support.

SPOILER ALERT FOR LAMB (2021, dir. Valdimar Jóhannsson)

"If our relationship to companion animals can be understood as a scar, our relationship to meat animals must be understood as a wound that will not close. It is a wound where flesh occasionally presses flesh, but a wound that continually breaks open and where the scar never seems to form. What kind of ethics might form a suture? Sutures require that we press flesh and bind it tightly. A vast reproductive economy of meat, entwining fleshes of multiple species, produces both agricultural exemptions and silence about those exemptions."   - Gabriel Rosenberg, in How Meat Changed Sex 

On an isolated sheep and potato farm in Iceland, during lambing season, a sheep gives birth—’unassisted’—to a creature that requires swaddling and (unlike most newborn sheep) cannot immediately walk: this is the opening premise of the Icelandic folk horror Lamb. The baby, we learn eventually, is a hybrid: part sheep, part human. The drama of Lamb hinges (or rather: ought to hinge) on the question of whether this being wants to be a sheep, or wants to be a human, or wants to be both—whether her various parents are prepared to do what it takes to enable her desire to be realized. In my reading, the two farmers, María and Ingvar, violently foreclose the possibility of multispecies belonging as well as polymaternal attachment, embodying, instead, the proprietary and exclusionary attitude I refer to (in Full Surrogacy Now) as “Surrogacy (TM).”

Wordlessly, and without asking permission from (or taking care of) her birth mother, María and Ingvar instantly adopt the neonate off the dirty floor of the sheep-shed, and name her Ada. They are a ‘childless’ heterosexual couple: it is possible that their childlessness stems from some kind of fertility issue. It is also possible that the gravestone of an infant, also ‘Ada,’ near the house, refers to a child of María and Ingvar who died a while ago. Or, perhaps, that short-lived human Ada was secretly (or not) a biological offspring of Pétur, Ingvar’s brother. Certainly, Pétur and María have some kind of sexual history. 

María and Ingvar make baby-sheep-Ada their own, presumably in order to suture the wound created by the loss of the mysterious prior baby-Ada. They wrap her as a human infant is wrapped, and bring her indoors, and zealously police the species-boundary as it traverses her body: she must sit on chairs and eat cooked food with cutlery, for example: she must not eat grass out of somebody’s hand. Her head is a sheep’s head, and one of her upper arms ends in a sheep’s hoof. The rest of her body is naked and human-shaped. She does not speak, but she looks, she communicates, and she palpably understands things. A crib is placed in the marital bedroom. Feeding, lullabies, bath-time joys ensue. María makes a crown of flowers (Midsommar style!) and, kissing her daughter in the field, places it over her furry ears. Pétur, who comes for a visit, is startled and repulsed by the familial scene. But Ingvar does not want to discuss his and his wife’s decision. “This is happiness,” he firmly explains. 

Such is the pretty picture set up for unholy destruction by the ovine surrogacy true-crime drama that ensues. I think this terminology – ‘true crime’ – is appropriate, in the end, because (despite the arthouse aspirations of the oeuvre) Lamb is content to treat the covetous totalitarianism of ‘mother love’ — i.e., a love so extreme it will brook no challengers — relatively uncritically. The agricultural and parental will to dominate, like the assumption that kinship can only be lived as a kind of proprietary annexation, are more or less flatly naturalized in Lamb, rather than made visible as such. Questions I really wanted the film to touch upon include: How can mothers mother together? What is children’s liberation? What affordances might we gain from demilitarizing species borders? And, lastly: “What care do we owe these children of humanity?” – the question queer theorist and historian Gabriel Rosenberg grapples with in his extraordinary essay on the co-constitution of anti-bestiality laws and laws permitting livestock husbandry, ‘How Meat Changed Sex‘:

I do not mean a saccharine politics that reproduces humanity’s patriarchal domination of animals: that we owe animals the patronage a parent owes a dependent. I mean something more literal. Rather than reckon only with animal death, a death already constituted as ungrievable by the terms of our encounter with it, abject and massified, I contend we must struggle with the interspecies entanglement that reproduces so much life, if only life to die. We must reckon first with an entanglement that propels animals into life.

Lamb is a ponderous and counter-intuitively silly mostly-failure of a movie that stretches a half-hour’s worth of plot—a gothic mystery revolving around multispecies kinship and murder—into almost two hours of admittedly great shots of flinty skies, dull straw, black soil, comfortable cottage-core farmhouse interiors, and bleak green grass. Set among silent, almost entirely unpeopled, mist-shrouded mountains, an intimation of eldritch gods and folk deities wafts through the pastoral scene from the get-go, as do the spectres of incest, bestiality and infanticide. Director Valdimar Jóhannsson co-wrote the script with Iceland’s lauded national poet, musician and novelist Sjón (full name Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson). Their shared artistic vision clearly aspires to radical sparseness in the name of psychological intensity. Besides sheep and the sheep-human hybrid Ada, there are only three characters in this movie: María (Noomi Rapace) and the brothers Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). Disappointingly, however, the surprise monster “reveals” at the middle and end of the narrative—delivered via CGI—cheapen the material and deflate any real interrogation of, say, property rights, as we live them in both our “own” procreation and in animal husbandry.

In Lamb, the cat, the dog, and the vast majority of the sheep on the farm are nameless working animals, but the economy for which they exist is mystified. Are they meat producers? Wool producers? Both? When and how are they slaughtered? Although opening on scenes of husbanded ovine birth (María reaching her arm into a pregnant and laboring ewe’s vagina, grabbing and pulling out lambs), the movie refuses to address this other central biopolitical dynamic at the heart of the household economy it depicts. We are shown the systematic production of forced birth on the ranch, but protected from the knowledge of systematically produced death.

The (false) separation between animal and human is also, in Lamb, the (false) separation between economy and family. For reasons not economic, or so he believes, Pétur actually considers killing Ada (he even gets as far as walking her to the end of the field, with his shotgun in one hand and her little hand in the other). His intention is to preserve his bloodline and purify the ontological order of humanness. Instead, he has a 180° change of heart. Not only does he find himself unable to kill his part-human niece, but he falls in love with her, seemingly by virtue of her charismatic cuteness. The would-be slaughterer of the mutant becomes a doting uncle, fully devoted to the cause of her humanization, teaching her to ride the tractor, taking her fishing, and so on. His fatal mistake – which causes him to be banished – is his attempt to blackmail María into sex by asking (one drunken night):  ‘does Ada know you killed her mother?

And so I am revealing it to you, the happy family’s grubby truth. Before Pétur, there was another “threat” to the family romance, and it was a sheep who (it seems to me) simply wanted to participate in mothering Ada. Having been robbed of her newborn and barred from contact with her, Ada’s birth mother – an unnamed ewe – persistently escapes from the shed whether she and the rest of the flock are housed, in order to stand, bleating desperately, outside the humans’ window. In the New York Times, among other places, this sheep is referred to by reviewers as “Ada’s real mother.” As though in pre-emptive rage at this verdict, María (the person who in a surrogacy context might be referred to as the commissioning mother) takes a shotgun, creeps out in the middle of the night, and silences this ewe’s claim to motherhood by shooting her in the head, dragging her off, and burying her in a shallow grave. The murder is intended to establish the truth that Ada is not a sheep; and that Ada is María’s child. But of course, in so doing, it interpellates the ewe as a person. It also destroys any claim María could ever have to loving her daughter Ada. 

If you love somebody, you do not artificially limit the number of their mothers.

What might multispecies co-mothering look like? This is not the film that wants to think about it; rather, it is interested in logics of folkloric inter-realm blood payment, haunting, and the return of the repressed. Thus, at the close of the narrative, this jealous, secret murder of the surrogate mother ewe by the human mother is, seemingly, avenged. An ovine patriarch takes the human patriarch’s life, as though in payment for the maternal ovine life taken by the maternal human. Ingvar is shot dead, and Ada is led away willingly, by a scary, muscled, horned upright ram-man (who is identical to Ada in terms of his sheep-human anatomical distribution and CGI composition). María is left alone, bereft of her child and husbandless (unhusbanded?). The camera concludes by dwelling on her stricken, suffering, pensive face.

Has she learned anything? What, if so, has she learned? Interpreted conservatively, the plot denouement says that every living being must (or, at least, will, eventually) stick to its kind. Read against the grain, however, Lamb draws unflattering parallels between the procreative economy of the livestock industry and the procreative economy of the private nuclear family. It suggests that both stem from a metabolic rift rending this Earth, a rift in need of (to recall Rosenberg’s term) suture.


You can read more work by Sophie Lewis by consulting her website lasophielle.org or by subscribing to her patreon, patreon.com/reproutopia.


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