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- English film director and actress
Dir: Andrea Arnold. 12A, 94 minutes.
Have you ever looked a cow in the eye? Really looked – deep into those midnight pools where the faintest glimmer of fear or longing might stir. In Andrea Arnold’s new documentary Cow, you certainly will. Shot over the course of four years, on an industrial dairy farm somewhere in the south of England, this largely wordless, 94-minute film allocates much of its runtime to the placid, but suggestive expressions of one Luma. We watch the creature closely as she gives birth, as she chews her cud, and as she’s hooked up to a milking machine, its nozzles splayed out like the heads of hungry leeches. Then we watch those processes again. More birth; more milk.
At one point, the cycle pauses, and Luma confronts us with a long, but heavily punctuated series of moos. A moo monologue, if you will. Perhaps she’s sharing with us her life story. Perhaps it’s a cry for help. Whatever the interpretation, she has the audience’s rapt attention. While Cow might be Arnold’s debut non-fiction feature, and the first with a non-human protagonist, there’s surprisingly little different here from Fish Tank or Wuthering Heights before it. The women who populate Arnold’s work always seem acutely aware of the ways their bodies are trapped in cycles of exploitation and exhaustion. It’s what they seek to rebel against or escape from.
Luma may not be gifted with the same choices, but she tries her best. She headbutts the camera. She grunts with rage. When she tussles with a farmer who’s trying to bottle-feed one of her calves, he remarks to his companion that “old age’s got her protective”. When she looks forlornly out of her pen, is it fair to imagine that she might be thinking of the babies stolen from their mother’s embrace? Arnold’s Cow is grimy and unvarnished where it counts, laced with poeticism whenever the banal cruelty threatens to leave its audience numb. Luma experiences small tastes of freedom whenever the herd is allowed to roam the fields. They gallop in a way that’s so springy and light that you’d swear they were skipping. At one point, Arnold even catches Luma gazing dreamily up towards the stars.
Cow never wields morality as a weapon, and the farmers are allowed to blend into the background, their presence made known mostly through guiding hands and gentle whispers of “good girl” and “there we go”. If there’s any attempt to actively anthropomorphise Luma, it’s done in a rather tongue-in-cheek way – we hear the occasional pop track made to sound like it’s blasting over the farm’s speakers, though the playlist is far too curated to possibly be incidental. When Luma is ushered into a pen with an eligible bull, the smooth beats of Kali Uchis’s “Tyrant” start to filter through. “Your lovin’ is like a kaleidoscope,” she croons, as (literal) fireworks are seen exploding in the night sky.
The wordlessness of Cow may immediately evoke one of the best documentaries of last year, Gunda, which followed a litter of piglets around what seemed to be an isolated, human-free farmyard. But these two films search for the same soul through entirely different means. Gunda creates a bubble of paradise around its animals, until the hand of humanity inevitably comes to rupture that fantasy. Cow, which sees Arnold working with a new cinematographer, Magda Kowalczyk, sticks somewhat closer to objective reality.
The camera roams and sidesteps obstacles in a way that always makes us conscious of its relationship (and our relationship) with Luma. That’s the extent to which Cow could be considered an activist piece of filmmaking – feel however you may feel about industrial farming, but now the cow stares back.