The Other Lamb
Ireland/Belgium (2019) Dir. Małgorzata Szumowska
Cults are scary. That a person or persons can influence others into following them and their distorted and pernicious philosophies is petrifying. I know they prey on the vulnerable and fill their heads with mind controlling nonsense but something has to give sooner or later, and can’t end well for anyone.
In a remote forest is a small retreat closed off from the rest of the world where women live in servitude to a lone male known as Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) in a polygamist arrangement. Ranging in age from youngsters to late thirties, their responsibilities when not rearing sheep for food and sacrificial rituals are to be Wives to Shepherd. They are denoted by their red robes whilst the younger girls, or Sisters, dress in blue.
One Sister, Selah (Raffey Cassidy) is on the verge of puberty and is worried as Shepherd deems menstruating as “unclean” and the women are locked away until their periods are over. When her time comes, Selah meets Sarah (Denise Gough), covered in scars from Shepherd’s abuse. When the police evict the flock, Shepherd leads them to a new Eden, during which shocking revelations cause Selah to rethink her place in the flock.
Making her English language debut, Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska enters the folk horror subgenre with this disturbing tale from the pen of C.S. McMullen that either takes on the patriarchy or has something to say about cults. I say this as the film can be read either way or more, depending on how you choose to decipher the symbolism and allegory.
Very likely, some will equate the messianic status of “Shepherd”, with his long hair and beard, by his “flock”, and his talk of “giving his grace” to his wives to Christianity and religion in general since they involve the same requirement of putting ones faith into the hands of someone else. And they may not like it either but whilst the terminology and language used isn’t explicit in any way for a direct comparison, the inference is certainly there.
Then again, cults don’t often rely on the concept of a higher power to worship, rather reaching higher spiritual plane, with a designated leader to facilitate this. Quite often, this takes the form of rejecting material goods an conventions to get closer to nature – at least to the minions whilst the head cheese indulges for all they are worth. In the case of Shepherd, it would appear to be about patriarchal control and regular exercising of his libido.
Now, what makes this frightening is not just the control Shepherd has over these women but also the fact the Sisters are almost assuredly sired from his own seed as the lone ram. This means, as you may have figured out, the self-perpetuating existence of the group relies on heavily implied incest, a notion I’m sure most of us would rather not entertain for wanting a less upsetting explanation, but this isn’t a chaste fairy tale.
As the Sisters have only know life with Shepherd, their every belief comes from what he tells them, although one wonders what the excuse is of the Wives to continue believing his BS? Some of the older women complain Shepherd used to covet them as he now does the younger girls but seem resigned to their place as an elder. Sarah meanwhile has been incarcerated presumably for daring to question him with nobody to support her, instead cravenly capitulating to his pronouncements against her.
Selah is among them until menarche occurs and she is sent to walk at the back of the line on their journey to the new home with Sarah. With only each other for company, Sarah reveals the truth about the death of Selah’s mother, which of course contradicts what Shepherd had told her. Further mistreatment of other women, and the nightmare apparitions that haunt Selah push her closer to an epiphany Shepherd will not approve of.
By way to portend the predictable climax, Selah has many symbolic stare downs with the only ram in the sect, the one put to stud to breed the lambs. When a lamb dies under Selah’s watch, it seems to regard her with an accusatory look, breathing hard and ready to pounce. Each time, Selah runs afoul of Shepherd, the ram is the one she tests her nerve against. Hardly subtle but it suffices in this context.
Less subtle is what might be perceived a systematic sexual abuse on Shepherd’s part. Regardless of whether the younger women and teens believe they are indeed accepting his grace, this is hardly consensual. Then there is the psychological abuse of demonising the natural act of menstruation, as well as discarding the older Wives for the younger Sisters, and finally the physical violence that seals his fate.
We could question whether Szumowska needed to be so graphic with the last part, but this is a film designed to shock us into recognising the signs of domestic abuse by way of this heavy-handed allegory. It may work or it may simply appal, but beneath the oneiric presentation and visual cacophony of Selah’s visions, captured through the pristine lens of Michal Englert, it is a compelling and provocative way to grab our attention.
Raffey Cassidy is only 21 but already has a varied CV of roles and films, and if her steely performance Selah is any indication, she is likely to find herself akin to Tilda Swinton or Jessie Buckley as the go to mercurial actress. There is an aura around Selah that is more terrifying than Michiel Huisman’ charisma-free Shepherd from her need to control her own destiny, supported by Denise Gough’s ravaged but resilient Sarah.
You won’t have an easy time with The Other Lamb but that’s the point. It’s a visually engrossing work, texturally sitting alongside Anti-Christ whilst thematically sharing a similar space to Midsommar. Its dual-level meaning allows for personal interpretation, both are valid, if you can get over the unbridled discomfort it engenders.