It's the Year of the Creepy Movie Baby
'Lamb,' 'Annette,' and 'Titane' all ask us to open our hearts to weird children.
The new A24 folk horror feature Lamb plays up the reveal of the irregular baby at the center of its narrative like the kid is Jaws. When a sheep gives birth to a creature so remarkable that two Icelandic farmers immediately take it in, we don't see what this child looks like. For a while, it's just her head that's visible, an adorable little lamb, the rest of her form swaddled in blankets. Director Valdimar Jóhannsson won't stop teasing the audience, but he has to give up the game eventually, and the girl named Ada emerges. She has a lamb head and a human's body, save for one hand, which is in fact a hoof.
Ada is just the latest of the strange babies to grace movie screens this year. In Annette, which came out in early August, an eerily lifelike puppet stands in as the titular character and product of Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard's doomed romance. At the conclusion of the more recent Titane, Alexia (Agathe Rouselle), a serial killer with a metal plate in her head, gives birth to an infant with a metallic spine, the result of coitus with a car. So what gives? Why are these unnerving spawn populating cinema?
Of course, there's no one answer that can explain all these filmmakers' motives, but it makes a grim amount of sense. Right now the future seems uncertain: The Earth is (almost literally) on fire. Who knows how long the human race can sustain its current path? It's only fitting that these visions of the ascendant generation are somehow warped, perhaps more equipped to deal with whatever is to come.
But none of these babes—even in the horror-inspired supernatural Lamb or the serial killer story Titane—are of the Bad Seed or Omen variety, neither devil children with Satanic motivations. Rather, they plunge audiences into the uncanny valley. These incomprehensible things that could otherwise be easily dismissed as grotesque are embraced with devotion. All the directors of all three films are not repulsed by their creations, which might otherwise freak out unsuspecting viewers; instead, these babies represent pure forms of love for the other characters on screen.
In Titane, Alexia is impregnated by a lowrider Cadillac with flames on its exterior. She tries to hide her growing belly as she impersonates the long-lost son of a firefighter, but her physical form is oozing oil. During the final moments of the film, Alexia, a cold-blooded killer, submits to the acceptance of her adoptive father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), and gives birth. Vincent does not flinch when he sees the hybrid baby. He cradles it to his chest, reassuring it and the audience that he will be a supportive parent.
Speaking with Thrillist, director Julia Ducournau explained that she was inspired by Greek mythology, specifically the coupling of the Earth Gaia and her son, the sky Uranus, from whom emerged the Titans. "Titane," which is defined on screen, is a reference to both titanium and the violent gods who ruled the Earth before Zeus. The myth is a brutal story: Gaia, the Earth, has her son, the Titan Cronos, castrate his father, the sky Uranus. But Ducournau wanted to make a movie that was "optimistic." Thus, the arrival of the baby is, yes, disgustingly visceral—Alexia gives her life for it as it splits her open—but it's also euphoric. Alexia is free from her pain and Vincent will raise it with care, even if it goes on to topple the word.
Ducournau is not the only director here referencing celestial beings. In a statement printed by Indiewire, Annette director Leos Carax explained that he envisioned Annette as a "tiny star, alone and lost in the dark infinite—the smallness of Annette in the face of the world." To achieve this, making her a puppet was a practical choice: Annette had to be a baby that sang a haunting melody in the musical written by Sparks, a feat no real baby could accomplish. Her voice emerges before she can even speak as an affront to her murderous father (Adam Driver), who then takes her on tour, milking her gift of song for money. There was, of course, no actual baby that could perform the part, so Carax employed the puppeteers Estelle Charlier and Romuald Collinet to turn her into a marionette.
The only way to truly convey Annette as an ethereal being, a pure entity in opposition to her stand-up comedian dad, driven by jealousy and rash impulses, was to make her somewhat discomforting. While at first it may seem like she's just bizarre, you eventually realize she's more humane than the flesh-and-blood monster who is controlling her. The more you watch, she becomes part of the fabric of Carax and Sparks' already otherworldly creation, a film that takes cinematic and operatic tropes to the extreme in order to heighten and parody the melodrama. Annette's performance is, by intention, the most tender on screen. She is grace personified, and ultimately, when she is replaced by a real kid in the final scene, forgiveness.
If Annette takes some getting used to, bizarrely, Ada the lamb-human hybrid baby in Lamb is immediately there to win over your heart. Ada is really freaking cute, and even skeptics are powerless to resist her. When Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), the brother of Ada's self-appointed father Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), arrives, he is initially horrified, so much so that he takes Ada outside with the intention to shoot her. But the next morning, he's cuddling the babe.
Ada herself is an innocent in all this, but the humans who take her in are not. Her adoptive mother, Maria (Noomi Rapace), names Ada after her own dead child, and doesn't think of the consequences of taking Ada away from her birth parents. In fact, she shoots the sheep that carried Ada when it comes to her door braying. Maria dotes on Ada like she was her own, but ignores any autonomy she might have. By the end, it's not Ada that gets retribution but her father, a ram-man derived quite literally from the director's nightmares. Ada herself is representative of what the need for love can drive a person to do.
On the surface it's true that these newborns may seem designed to creep viewers out, but each film is actually about how lovable each of these infants are, be that because of their raw power, their ineffably beautiful talent, or their unvarnished sweetness. Their presences may be full of dread and absurdity, but they come bearing messages of the beauty of human compassion. And, hey, the future itself is at first a little scary, but you have to welcome it with open arms. Just like these babies.