Andrea Arnold says that her new film Cow is not a documentary, and it’s hard to argue with her. Audiences are conditioned to expect certain things from that genre from decades of watching mainstream films and TV shows where we have a very definite narrative played out using voiceover and talking heads, along with inspiring music, especially when it’s a nature documentary. Cow has no non-diegetic music and no one talking over it and is much more in the vein of Frederick Wiseman’s fly on the wall films. Or, in this case, fly on the cow.
Cow takes place in Park Farm in Kent and follows the life of Luma, one of the farm’s dairy cows. We meet Luma as she’s giving birth and accompany her through her routines. It’s not exactly thrill-a-minute, and Cow has a tendency to flit between hypnotic and tedious, but it needs to be that way for us to get a true idea of what her life is like. Or what it feels like to be a cow.
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Arnold gets her camera in as up close and personal as she can, to the point where it feels like it could be strapped to the animal, along with external shots of Luma. There’s a frankness to it all that is inspiring, and nothing is really held back, although thankfully we’re spared any close-ups of cow shit. The birth of the calf that opens the film reminded me of the chestburster scene in Alien; the way the baby is painted with blood and mucus, it’s hard to anthropomorphise things when it’s presented like that. And Luma spends a certain amount of time walking around with the afterbirth still hanging out like a second tail which, while not necessarily gruesome, is still kind of gnarly to see.
Anthropomorphising is such a loaded word, really, and it certainly comes into play here, at least in a different form than we’re used to. Audiences are constantly bombarded with talking humanised animals whether they’re in movies, cartoons, or even selling breakfast cereal, and if you’re of a certain savviness, you might try and fight it when you come across a film like Cow. You may think that you need to be objective and you shouldn’t imprint supposed human qualities on animals, but the film helps to allow you to feel emotion without imagining them singing tunes.
Luma’s calf is taken away fairly quickly, and we follow the calf as well for a short time, where we see how the motherly dependency is cut immediately. As the calf, which is unnamed, goes for its mother’s udders, the farmhand instead shoves a bottle into her mouth. Shortly after the calf is taken to its own pen, where it’s given a tub with an udder-like attachment to suckle from. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for it when its mother has been replaced by a feeder. Likewise, we see Luma in the food pen, where all the other cows are chowing down happily, and she’s not eating. Is she depressed? Is she missing her child?
There are moments where you’re going to feel sorry for the animals, no matter what you normally think. For example, there’s a scene where Luma’s calf is dehorned using some sort of heat gun that stops the horns from growing, and while the calf doesn’t seem to be in too much pain, it’s still fairly distressing to watch. However, Luma seems to be in some discomfort where her hooves are shaved with an angle grinder, the kind of thing you’d imagine being used on a car or even in a horror movie, so the juxtaposition here really makes it.
It’s worth pointing out that this film doesn’t have any kind of overt agenda. It’s not an animals rights film, it’s not out to judge anyone, it’s just interested in showing the lives of these animals and how they compare to ours. Of course, it’s easy to draw conclusions, but Arnold really tries to put us in the shoes – hooves – of the animals. Everything is shot from the cow’s level, so we rarely see the whole of a person, just arms and legs and faces, and there are a lot of fascinating shots where we linger on aeroplanes in the sky, things we as humans use as transport regularly. But what must a cow think?
The amount of human interaction is minimal, with intervals where Luma either gives birth – which she does twice over the course of the film – or is checked upon, which gives us the classic All Creatures Great and Small image of someone with a plastic bag on their arm, which is buried up to their bicep in the cow’s vagina. We see farmhands taking the cows from one pen to another or to be milked, and we hear snippets of conversations, but nothing substantial, and we’re supposed to be a cow, so we wouldn’t understand it anyway. We’re also privy to the music played across the farm which comes from national radio, and most of it is dreadful.
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Cow is a fascinating picture. It’s difficult to watch at first because we’re so used to being given at least a little bit of context, whereas here there’s nothing, not even the name of the farm. Because of the repetitive nature of Luma’s life, it does sometimes lapse into something approaching boring, but once you’re in the mindset of being there with Luma, it’s often mesmerising, and thoughtful. And when you look at the average human life with a cow, you might start to realise they’re not so different after all.
Cow is out in cinemas on January 14th, and exclusively on MUBI from 11th February.