Wednesday 14 October 2020

Something in the woodshed: "The Other Lamb"

The industrious Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska is presently touring her latest, Never Gonna Snow Again, around the festival circuit (it arrived in London earlier this week); to coincide, MUBI UK have rescued her previous film, last year's The Other Lamb. This was Szumowska's English-language debut, and a cult movie in both senses of the term: a film about the internal power struggles of a religious sect settled in the American wilderness, it proved too cool for crossover success upon its U.S. release - or, indeed, wider distribution, which is why it's only emerging here now on streaming. One or two creative choices suggest that this was Szumowska's shot at a Handmaid's Tale, which - given the strongly feminist bearing of her earlier works (2011's Elles, 2015's Body) - probably shouldn't surprise anyone too much. We're out in the back of beyond (actually rural Ireland, passing for the American heartlands), with Michiel Huisman growing his hair Christ-length to play a false prophet referred to as "Shepherd", holed up here with his "wives" - women young and old in gorgeously colour-coordinated smocks - to preach scripture and have it away as often as possible. Particularly besotted is teenage newcomer Selah (Raffey Cassidy), although she's the one who discovers the Shepherd's dirty secret: a woodshed in which he locks away all those who stray from His path, most prominently Denise Gough as a character who extends Szumowska's interest in the many ways men exert dominance over the female form, scarred, breasts taped down, banished and deemed "a broken thing" simply because she no longer has any interest in cooking and cleaning for The Man.

One immediate advantage the film has over the TV Handmaid's Tale (as distinct from Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale) is that it gets to the point: it takes 96 minutes to establish this world, show us the heinous acts committed within it, and then gesture towards a turning point. Szumowska doesn't labour the grimness unduly: The Other Lamb is often dreamily beautiful, particularly in a stretch describing a hilltop ritual involving Selah and a pregnant ewe. Working closely with regular cinematographer Michał Englert, this director's eye for composition and colour has sharpened project by project. The issue is one of abstraction, and how allusive a film can get before it starts to seem almost entirely elusive. It's weird that an ostensibly humanist director, possessed of a sincere concern with that which we do to our own and other people's bodies, should have generated a run of movies that feel as though they're taking place at arm's length, featuring characters who rarely seem more than cyphers. We get a useful conversation here between Cassidy and Gough's Sarah that explains why these women are here and submitting to such a heightened level of control - but it's placed at the halfway mark, some time after we've given up wondering. Like the gradually displaced cult, The Other Lamb starts circling round on itself: it never satisfyingly develops, in part because its characters - slapped early on with the labels of either "victim" or "oppressor" - have no room to develop, save to get more oppressive or brutalised still. Though played out against different backdrop, the dynamic of the second half is largely the same as that of the first, until a rushed, unpersuasive ending sounds a note of hopeful change. Szumowska continues to strike me as a talent who's almost there, but not quite: once again here, she alights upon vivid scenes and moments, and fails to find a means of connecting them up into a more forceful whole. I'm not sure The Other Lamb tells us anything more than that there are men who treat women like livestock, which hardly seems news in 2020, and - as with the TV Handmaid, which has somehow drawn in viewers with the promise of further degradations and humiliations - makes for a strange idea of entertainment.

The Other Lamb streams on MUBI UK from Friday.

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