A close-up portrait of the daily lives of two cows.
Anyone who saw last year’s Gunda (Viktor Kosakovskiy’s gentle, speech-free documentary about a mother pig and her brood of new-born piglets) will recognise some of the ideas and spirit running through Andrea Arnold’s Cow. In both, there’s a desire to chronicle the lives of animals bred as livestock without any proselytising or anthropomorphising. The idea isn’t to shock or horrify, although there are certainly moments in the films that do both, but to simply and soberly present the nature of the exploitation these animals endure in order for us to eat and drink… and leave it for audiences to join the dots.
Cow is Arnold’s first feature since American Honey (2016)—although she’s directed a fair bit of TV between then and now—and her first documentary in a career that began with short films, including the Academy Award-winning Wasp (2003). Shot over four years, it focuses on Luma, an ageing dairy cow who lives on a farm somewhere in England. At the beginning, we see her give birth to a calf, but that happy event soon gives way to scenes more uncomfortable. Luma is taken away to be milked with the placenta still hanging out of her body, the daughter is bottle-fed and tagged by a farm worker before being separated from her clearly distressed mother for good.
Arnold is keen for us to see the world through Luma’s own eyes, to put us very much in her, um, hooves. There are people here (farm workers, vets, etc), but they’re not even given names let alone an opinion or perspective. They’re little more than extras in Luma’s story.
Cow isn’t an attempt to take down the dairy industry (I doubt Arnold would’ve been granted access to the farm if it had been), but rather springs from a desire to show the reality of what goes into producing what we consume. Many of us have no idea how a dairy farm works and, because of the discomfort it would cause, didn’t want to know either. Cow also invites a wider debate about the world we live in and the systems we live under, particularly around matters of exploitation and autonomy. From Luma’s predicament it’s hardly a hop, skip, and a jump to consider conditions in Chinese sweatshops or attacks on reproductive rights in the US.
The idea that the natural world’s being subverted—or even perverted—looms large in Cow. You see it in the widespread mechanisation on the farm, with the automated milking, feeding, and shit-clearing. There’s even an awful box-like contraption that tips up the animals and holds them firmly in place while they have their hooves sanded clean. You see it in those times when loud pop music’s piped into the animal pens and echoes off their corrugated metal walls, presumably to keep the farm hands entertained, unless Luma and her bovine buddies are secretly fans of Billie Eilish and The Pogues. The film starts with a birth and ends in a death—nothing could be more natural, except these events are rendered exactly the opposite by the circumstances in which they take place.
We live in a culture where we’re positively encouraged to ascribe human characteristics and emotions to animals—with videos of cute pets on social media, Disney animations, David Attenborough documentaries, those RSPCA TV ads machine-tooled to tug at heart strings. As a result, it’s hard not to do the same here. One look into Luma’s big, brown eyes—Arnold shoots her bovine subject in loving close-up throughout Cow—will have you reaching for adjectives such as “soulful” and “melancholy”. But that would miss the point the director is making so powerfully here. Luma, nor any of the animals featured, should need to be anthropomorphised for us to care about their lives and welfare. It doesn’t matter whether her eyes are soulful or satanic, she’s a living, feeling creature and deserves to be treated with empathy and dignity. To be fair to the farm workers, they handle her and the other cows with kindness (at least while the cameras are around), but despite their seeming decency, they’re still cogs in a system of ruthless exploitation. These creatures are little more than living, breathing plant and machinery, with few to speak up for them.
The innumerable conversations conducted around mental health these days rarely mention animals—least of all farm animals—but Cow raises the issue. You only realise the kind of emotional stresses and strains Luma must live under at the farm when she and the rest of the herd are allowed out into a field overnight (we aren’t told how often this happens, although, judging by the herd’s reaction, not nearly enough). The cows sniff the fresh air, feast on grass, and run free with what could best be described as sheer joy. There is peace here too—no pop music, no noisy machinery, no cramped pens, no impatient entreaties to “come on” as their handlers take them off to be milked over and over again. A few precious hours outdoors can only do so much though for Luma who, it transpires, has produced six offspring during her years on the farm and seen them all taken away from her. It’s little wonder old age has made her more protective and aggressive.
Arnold permits herself one humorous moment—when a bull mates with Luma, and she conceives another calf. It’s shot like a typical movie love scene, complete with a bit of foreplay and Kali Uchis’s sultry “Tyrant” playing in the background. To save Luma’s blushes, the director cuts away to fireworks before proceedings get too explicit and even serves up a moment of post-coital bliss as Luma and her paramour snuggle. The only thing missing is a shared cigarette.
Cow’s shaky handheld camera style sometimes gives way to moments of genuine beauty from cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk—Luma bathed in deep shadow like a figure in a Chiaroscuro painting or standing in a field looking up at the stars on her brief sojourn away from the farm. But while there is visual poetry here, there is also an air of unease, even menace; a feeling that these small, fragile lives could be snuffed out at any moment if it suited their owners—or the farm’s financial bottom line—to do so. The rotting body of a dead cow on the ground in one shot underlines it—these animals are here to serve us and when they are no longer able to do so, their time is up.
Although most of Cow focuses on Luma, a small patch of black fur near her left eye making her instantly stand out from the rest of the herd, Arnold frequently cuts away to show us the progress of the calf we saw born at the beginning. Wearing ugly ear tags and with the ‘horn buds’ on her head burnt-out, it’s only a matter of time before she takes her place in the milking and birthing pens. In the film’s final scene, we see her and other young cows gambolling carefree down a country road as Garbage’s plaintive ‘Milk’ (“I’m waiting, I’m waiting for you”) plays over the end credits. A haunting moment in a film that is full of them.
UK | 2021 | 94 MINUTES | 1.90:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Andrea Arnold.
cinematographer: Magda Kowalczyk.
editors: Rebecca Lloyd, Jacob Schulsinger & Nicolas Chaudeurge.