Director: Andrea Arnold
Ever since her Oscar-winning debut short Wasp back in 2003, Andrea Arnold has been using the immediacy of hand-held to carve out her stories, charting a career of generally acclaimed social realism in the UK before the last decade saw her restlessly applying her methods to other forms. A dourly gripping literary adaptation with 2011’s Wuthering Heights. A cultural shift with 2016’s American Honey.
While having what seems to have been a frustrating experience on the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies, Arnold put the finishing touches on her latest film, which returns her storytelling to the UK. Cow is her first feature documentary, though she uses those same techniques to bring us a new perspective. This is Bovine social realism, if you will.
Shot over a number of years at Park Farm in Kent, Cow trails the experiences of Luma, a grown dairy cow. Arnold and her cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk keep the camera low to match Luma’s own eye-level, and they’re right there beside, behind and around her for much of the running time. Part and parcel of a labyrinthine industry, Luma’s life is a maze of gloomy pens, steel bars and mysterious corridors.
At the beginning of the piece she is birthing a calf that is then quickly taken off for it’s own life of servitude. Luma’s searching and accusatory moos paint a portrait of bewildered loss. Cow offers no narration, no talking heads, but through editing it infers a mindset and a narrative. Arnold and company have done a decent job trying to remain as passively neutral as Luma herself, but from the off one can’t help but project an assumed anthropological response to Luma’s experiences. Concepts such as slavery, imprisonment, exploitation and abuse are likely beyond Luma’s sentience, yet they are readily offered to us, sitting in the dark.
As much as Cow is – by it’s very nature – nothing but realism, it goes to show how exceedingly surreal our world can be. When it comes to milking time (as it frequently does), Luma is herded onto a vast carousel and gently revolves with the rest of her sisters. Here, a radio plays pop music – unheard anywhere else – and it is as though the likes of Kali Uchis and Billie Eilish have appeared from the heavens to serenade the herd. An offering for their milk. These scenes are liminal, eerie, comically absurd.
In an effort to help us appreciate the dystopian horror of the milking sheds, it isn’t until at least half way through the picture (time is difficult to gauge) that we are afforded the experience of pasture. After endless darkness, steel bars and silage, the excited rush to the fields is almost orgiastic. In tandem we chart Luma’s separated calf experiencing the countryside for the first time, and this protracted sense of idyll has an almost Malickian quality. By contrast, everything in the sheds is about thwarting nature, from the false udders that the calves are immediately weened on, to the vast milking carousel. Cow shows us an industry that works against a natural order, in defiance of it.
While watching Cow one of the constants of documentary filmmaking remains present in the mind; the Schrödinger equation. How much does observing a thing change it? Luma is always aware of Arnold’s camera. She looks into it, she yells at it, occasionally she attacks it. But is it not also her companion? She is evidently a creature that thinks and feels, even if such expressions are comparatively rudimentary. In a life that deliberately sabotages (human) notions of family and connection, one wonders to what degree Arnold’s camera is sometimes of solace to Luma. As ever, the act of documenting is part of what is being documented. It can’t not be.
The peripheral humans are not portrayed as monsters, rather as pragmatic keeps of stock. The womenfolk are a shade more motherly toward the beasts, but the men act stiffly, matter-of-factly, as though handling merchandise with emotion severed. Returning to the sheds and the cyclical routines of milking, feeding, bedding down and hoof sheering, a shapeless monotony reasserts itself. These late sections might feel too dreary and repetitive if a) that wasn’t the point and b) we weren’t becoming increasingly concerned about the film’s inevitable end.
Some incredibly subtle sound work is utilised to get us there, and one struggles to ascertain whether the troublesome drones are post-production additions or simply the machinations of the farm. Still, when Luma’s time is up – her udders grotesquely engorged and cumbersome to carry – the finale is swift and jolting. The lack of humanity in the scene the most telling trait of all. Cow might not intend to lecture, but bovine social realism is so vivid that you can almost smell it. With such a keen ability to convey, one can’t miss the authorial judgement that comes with it.