Małgorzata Szumowska’s visually striking English language debut is a horror movie parable of revenge in a misogynistic cult
Jesus Christ is a sex icon. The luscious hair, the quenching of thirst, and the unrivalled stamina may not be his most preached-about characteristics, but they have permeated decades of popular culture. “I totally agree with you,” the Polish auteur Małgorzata Szumowska exclaims over Zoom. “Jesus is totally a sex icon. When I was 15, I was in love with Jesus. I always thought that he was so sexy and extremely good-looking. I would imagine he was my boyfriend!”
It’s the first week of October and Szumowska is speaking from her home in Warsaw. The reason for the sexy Jesus talk is that Szumowska’s new psychological horror, The Other Lamb, features a very sexy Jesus figure. Bearded, bossy, and played by Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman, a cult leader known as the Shepherd leads a flock of young women to what he calls “a broken place for broken people”. Some are “sisters”, some are “wives”; all are dressed in colour-coded uniform. “His attention is like the sun,” one wife remarks. “First it’s warm and glorious, and then it burns.”
One possible escapee could be Selah, a teenage girl depicted by Raffey Cassidy. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Vox Lux, Cassidy’s characters quickly succumb to external forces; Selah, though, was born into the cult and has reached the point of growing up when you rebel. As Szumowska quit Christianity at an early age, she identified with Selah when reading Catherine S. McMullen’s screenplay. “Very much so,” the 47-year-old director says. “And when I met Raffey, she was 15, and very much like me at the time. I was full of energy and boyish too, like a tomboy.”
The Other Lamb is Szumowska’s first time shooting in English and from someone else’s script. Her other features, including Mug, Body, and the Juliette Binoche-starring Elles, were written or co-written by her. But don’t call her a director-for-hire. “I’m an auteur so it’s hard to feel like someone who’s hired to do something,” she insists. “I need to feel it from the bottom of my heart. So I had to dig a little into my roots.”
So much so, the cast joked on set that the real Shepherd was actually Szumowska. “But you have to be a Shepherd to be a director! Especially if you’re a woman surrounded by crew who are mostly men. ‘Manipulate’ isn’t a good word but you have to make them do what you want.” Could she have switched the characters’ gender, then? “If the Shepherd’s a woman and it’s a group of men, maybe it’d be more original. I haven’t seen something like that. But the film’s about female sensitivity, and women attracted to a fake Jesus. It’d be hard.”
Szumowska instead injects her originality into the haunting, lingering mise-en-scène. In collaboration with her regular cinematographer and occasional co-writer Michał Englert, Szumowska favours wide-angle lenses and Gregory Crewdson-inspired visuals that demand to be studied like paintings – often, the pacing doesn’t give you any other option. Her diehard arthouse sensibilities mean there’s no voiceover and expository dialogue is kept to a minimum. Scenes frequently involve the viewer analysing tiny details such as the internal fury on Selah’s otherwise stationary face or the cult’s esoteric decorations.
For instance, what’s up with the wool that’s tightly wrapped around trees to form a makeshift meeting room? “We were really limited by budget, but I wanted to create an unpredictable, strange world,” Szumowska explains. “So I said we should use the wool like a bandage.” She realised afterwards it was an unconscious nod to the Italian artist Maria Lai. “The wool’s like BDSM. It’s sexual and a symbol of limitation.”
The truth is, Szumowska made numerous uncredited contributions to the script. McMullen’s screenplay garnered buzz when it landed on the 2017 Black List, but that draft, which I’ve read, stages the action in the sweltering heat of an Australian desert. Szumowska not only sexes up the Shepherd, but she relocates the story to an unnamed corner of American wilderness (it was shot in County Wicklow, in Ireland) where the characters shiver so convincingly from coldness it may not be acting.
In the film’s most transcendent moment, Selah fantasises that she’s in the back of a car, in modern attire, like a normal teenager; she idly gazes out the window and spots her real, miserable self in the distance, trudging through mud with the cult towards their doom. “That scene was my invention,” Szumowska notes. “It’s a (homage to a famous scene in) Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique. The Australian desert is very different from Ireland. I had to show there’s an outside world somewhere.”
“I’m an auteur so it’s hard to feel like someone who’s hired to do something. I need to feel it from the bottom of my heart” – Małgorzata Szumowska
Also not in the original script was the Shepherd’s fetish for inserting his fingers into women’s mouths. “We weren’t allowed to do real, abusive, violent scenes,” Szumowska says, “because a lot of those girls, especially Raffey, were underage. There are laws everywhere, but especially Ireland, that you can’t do sex scenes with minors. Even if you are, there are many restrictions.
“I figured out that putting fingers in the mouth in a very violent way is a kind of disgusting and organic replacement.” She pauses. “You know that I was one of the producers on Antichrist? I love that film. I couldn’t do things like what Lars did.”
In Lars von Trier’s 2012 exploration of depression, a baby leaps to its death within five minutes, Charlotte Gainsbourg slices off her clitoris with scissors, and Willem Dafoe hallucinates a fox uttering the words “chaos reigns”. So was producing Antichrist, another slow-burn horror in a forest, useful for The Other Lamb? “Of course, it was an inspiration, like with the skinless lamb and the tone. Lars von Trier was one of my favourite directors in the ‘90s, and I’m very influenced by him. But it’s interesting, he was inspired by Tarkovsky. It’s Tarkovsky, then von Trier.” And then her? “Yes! And now I’m the female Lars.”
In the press pack from 2019, Szumowska’s director’s statement describes The Other Lamb as “an allegory for the present moment”, “a dark cry against the patriarchy”, and, in reference to #MeToo, about how “women across the world are rewriting history”. Ever since Body won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Szumowska has been bombarded with English-language scripts. The idea never appealed to her – but The Other Lamb seemed so intrinsically connected to #MeToo.
“I read the script three years ago,” she recalls, “and the #MeToo movement was new – everyone discussed it. It’s one of the reasons I decided to make this film. But when I look at it now, I don’t think it’s directly linked to #MeToo. It’s more about teenagers growing up. It’s about how to be a woman, and finding your own sexuality and independence. There’s a lot of metaphysics and it’s unconscious. It’s not so linked directly to social aspects.”
If she were to do a director’s statement now in October 2020, it may involve a plea to watch The Other Lamb on the largest screen possible. Earlier this year in April, IFC was meant to distribute the film theatrically in America; the pandemic meant that it went out on VOD. At first, she was distraught. “Then I was enthusiastic about the attention I received from the US, because journalists were talking to me about COVID, the film going straight to platforms, and how I feel. More people probably watched the film because of it. I was like, ‘OK, it’s a new way of how it should be!’
“Jesus is totally a sex icon. When I was 15, I was in love with Jesus. I always thought that he was so sexy and extremely good-looking” – Małgorzata Szumowska
“Then I completely changed my mind. After five months of streaming, I hated it. You can talk to your child. You can make tea. There’s no concentration. I hated the experience.” Another factor was that Szumowska’s follow-up feature, Never Gonna Snow Again, premiered at Venice Film Festival in September. The sci-fi comedy has already been announced as Poland’s Oscar entry and Variety predict it will be her “mainstream arthouse breakthrough”. I also watched it, admittedly on my laptop, through London Film Festival, but would agree: the mesmerising oddity is my favourite movie in ages.
“I saw Never Gonna Snow Again on the big screen in the Sala Grande and I was crying. Two hours. No one speaking. No phones. No eating. No drinking. Silence. And the experience of cinema. A TV series is 10 hours, and you cannot stay attached for such a long time, emotionally. At the end, you don’t have catharsis. Cinema is very much about catharsis.
“And now I regret that The Other Lamb was not in cinemas, and I’m really afraid of what’s going to happen with Never Gonna Snow Again. In Poland, we’re going to wait for next year and see. I don’t know how it’s going with Picturehouse.” During Venice Film Festival, Picturehouse snapped up the UK rights; our Zoom call is one day after Picturehouse announced its indefinite closure. It’s a sensitive subject that sets her off. “I regret the experience with The Other Lamb,” she reiterates. “Because of the pandemic, it went straight to Netflix in Poland, and in the US to iTunes.”
It’s at this point of the interview that Szumowska learns that MUBI, who have the UK rights for The Other Lamb, plan to release it in cinemas as well as on their streaming service. Her face lights up. “Then I’m very, very happy. I’m so happy.” She sighs with relief. This is the reaction of an auteur, not a director-for-hire. “I can’t say how happy I am.”
Never Gonna Snow Again is Szumowska’s return to Polish-language filmmaking and the droll humour of Mug. A Ukrainian masseur, Zhenia, enriches the lives of a bored middle-class community in Warsaw with his magic fingers; it’s unclear if he’s an angel or a shaman. “They’re suffering from a lack of spirituality and feel very lonely,” Szumowska says. “They believe he has superpowers and can heal them. It has a strong UK black sense of humour, I would say.”
Szumowska cowrote the script with Michał Englert and loosely based Zhenia on a real masseur she shares with her neighbour Paweł Pawlikowski. The Oscar-winning director of Cold War is the only name thanked in the credits of The Other Lamb. “I watch Paweł’s films at certain stages, and he watches mine,” she says. “You know, I’m thanked on Ida. Pawel was searching for a girl to play Ida, and I found Agata Trzebuchowska in a café. And now she wants to direct – she was my assistant on Never Gonna Snow Again.”
“People are crazy about yoga and special ways of eating. They’re trying to find spirituality and ways to extend their life forever. That’s why cults are so popular” – Małgorzata Szumowska
Szumowska considers The Other Lamb and Never Gonna Snow Again to be thematically connected. In one, the saviour is a Jesus figure; in the other, it’s a masseur. “Most people feel unstructured and anxious,” she says. “The influence of religion is not as strong as it was in the past. I’m happy the Church is not in power anymore, I must admit, but it creates a problem where people are so afraid of dying. People are crazy about yoga and special ways of eating. They’re trying to find spirituality and ways to extend their life forever. That’s why cults are so popular.”
Who knows if Never Gonna Snow Again is never gonna show again, but, according to IMDb, Szumowska is directing Sisters, a movie co-written with Christine Angot – the controversial French novelist who co-wrote Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In and whose childhood trauma inspired An Impossible Love. There’s no information anywhere on the internet about it. “IMDb sometimes messes up, I must say,” Szumowska murmurs, deflecting the question.
So it’s not true? She sighs. “Juliette Binoche is the lead character and producing the film. I don’t know when it’s going to happen.” Can she give a synopsis? She sighs again. “It’s a story about two sisters based on me and my sister’s experiences. There’s a good sister and a bad sister. They fight, but they love each other, and find catharsis together at the end.” Was she the good or bad sister? And which one’s Binoche? She laughs. “Enough already!”
To change the subject, Szumowska mentions that she’s attached to direct numerous English-language projects, more than physically possible, and is writing another film with Englert that she’ll shoot in Poland in 2024. But that’s enough scoops for one conversation. “It’s strange,” she says. “I get sent a lot of thrillers and horror scripts. I never considered myself to be a genre director. I’m the type of the filmmaker who’s doing many things. I started when I was 25. I’ve done nine films. I really appreciate changing the style and tone. Some directors do one film their whole life, and I’m not that type of director.”
The Other Lamb is available on MUBI and in select UK cinemas on October 16