In my early childhood I could regularly be found in the cowsheds of Flemish relatives. So I don’t look up at an arm that completely disappears into a cow derrière to check a uterus. Or calves that were held in a headlock to nip budding horns in the bud.
While I’ve mostly left meat out in recent years, including at family gatherings, I’ve never considered veganism, which also involves avoiding dairy products. Just living as a cow to be slaughtered, isn’t that different from living to produce milk?
But is that really so? In her new movie cow director Andrea Arnold manages to make you feel like a cow for an hour and a half. Or for those who are less sensitive to the immersive film techniques that are used; reminding you that as a human you have much in common with the ruminating behemoth who may have filled the carton of milk in your refrigerator. A confrontational experience, because it is not that much fun: being separated from your mother immediately, being pregnant non-stop to serve your owner and ending up with udders that take on such gigantic proportions that you can barely stand on your feet.
Arnold, known for acclaimed feature films such as Fish Tank and American Honey, followed the black and white dairy cow Luma on a British dairy farm for four years. Not from a distance, but via a handheld camera that sits atop Luma’s mottled fur, capturing the look in her large black eyes or zooming in on what she may be seeing between her white lashes.
People around Luma are reduced to soothing background figures or hands. Faces are often missing from the figures who incessantly vaccinate, check or connect Luma’s body to milking machines. As a result, images that you may have seen dozens of times before – in (cartoon) films that idealize rural life or in your youth – suddenly acquire something alienating and radical.
Arnold stimulates identification purely through observation and professional assembly. Without a voice-over explaining that cows have quite a complex emotional life, you start projecting as a viewer and discern parallels. This is how it starts cow smart with childbirth, a moment when human instincts also take over from ratio.
Only recognizable intuitive reactions are taken away from Luma. When she has calved, she can briefly lick her young clean after which she is immediately directed towards the milking machines, the umbilical cord still dangling against her hind legs. Her calf is bottle-fed. If mother and child are permanently separated not much later, it is difficult to interpret Luma’s bellowing as anything other than maternal despair.
Arnold goes a long way in portraying – or is it suggesting? – of parallels. So far that you sometimes doubt what you’re looking at. After all, Luma fits seamlessly between the characters in Arnold’s feature film oeuvre; young mothers and headstrong women who stubbornly hold their own in hopeless situations full of casually transgressive behaviour. For example, shortly after she is separated from her young, we see Luma hanging apathetically above a feeder. Is this convenient montage or mourning? Projection of the filmmaker or the viewer? Or pure registration? And does it matter? Broken heart syndrome was diagnosed earlier in animals than in humans. Just like in Arnold’s feature films, it is not all doom and gloom, we also see Luma and her offspring frolicking in a meadow.
Also read an interview with Andrea Arnold about ‘Cow’: ‘Look at a cow as a sentient living creature’
Luma isn’t the only farm animal recently elevated to an individual and garnering attention as a movie star. Not illogical, now that the way and scale in which agriculture and livestock farming is done are under a magnifying glass. Last year there was Victor Kossakovski’s gunda, in which we follow a sow after farrowing a litter. In Cannes went in May EO premiere, which follows the trials of a donkey, a tribute to Robert Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Baltazar. Closer to home was family film last weekend grunt the big winner during the presentation of the Golden Calves. An animation film, but one in which the character of a piglet becomes clear through his behavior and expressions, not because a human provides him with a voice or voice-over.
Compared to some of the above movies, it seems cow relatively mild for livestock farmers. Although those could also be projections from the undersigned, who in the past was not very sentimental about cows and benevolent towards farmers. Farmers are not evil with Arnold; rather, they are creatures that are quite friendly and seemingly perform their duties on autopilot. Just like Luma, we see them continuously at work, holidays or not. We don’t hear their considerations and reservations, so they don’t seem to have them either. That fits perfectly with Arnold’s feature film oeuvre, where people do terrible things to each other but never seem purely evil.
It makes cow one of the most interesting films about animal husbandry of recent times. One that doesn’t point the finger or feel like too simplistic a pamphlet for veganism. But who, through astonishment and inversion, makes a sincere attempt to address the absurdity of our current dealings with animals.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 5, 2022