British director Andrea Arnold follows up 2016’s American Honey and a sojourn in television with her first documentary, Cow. A near-wordless study of dairy cow Luma’s life and shot from a bovine-eye view, Cow resists the urge to anthropomorphise Luma while eliciting deep empathy for this non-human animal.
It may be the veteran filmmaker’s first effort, but Cow makes Arnold look like she was born to make documentaries. Known for her close-up cinematography, attention to small details, and evocation of the tactile grit and grime and under-the-nails feel of life, Arnold’s sensibility is well-suited to capturing the spontaneous authenticity of the form. Cow is presented in 1.90:1 widescreen: curious, perhaps, for a director who has tended to favour the boxier 1.37 and 1.33:1 ratios for her more cinematic work, but it’s a choice that allows to her pull back in the film’s latter-half, widening the frame as the cows move outside for the summer, evoking, all too briefly, the bucolic in a visual juxtaposition of the mechanised world of the cowshed.
The film opens with the birth of her fifth calf. Covered in amniotic slime, muck and straw, the calf is limp, almost alien-looking. In an instant its eyes open, the camera capturing the spark of life inside. It’s too much of a stretch to say that the calf’s eyes are almost human – the film itself rigidly eschews such blurring – but there is undoubtedly a recognition of something shared: an animal intelligence or sense of emotion that surely transcends the boundaries of species. Throughout, Cow plays with this idea, suggesting human-like emotion but with the knowledge that there will forever be a gap in understanding that cannot be closed. We can imagine that Luma feels grief for the calf soon to be taken from her, or loneliness, or joy, but we can never know what those things are like for her. She is clearly a sentient, feeling, being, but that sentience is not ours.
There is no proselytising here and the film is insistently neutral on the debate over the exploitation of animals in industrial farming. Many of the processes, such as the cauterising of the calf’s horns, seem brutal, but the farm workers also exhibit a tenderness and care for their animals that belies much of the cruelty we know exists in the industry. As a consequence, viewers will invariably temper what is depicted with their own perspectives: proponents of modern farming techniques will likely come away with a humane, utilitarian impression of farming; opponents of the use of animals will instead notice the industry’s casual exploitation and disposal of life.
Some may decry Cow’s neutrality, but as a result it avoids the temptation to use Luma as a proxy for the industry as a whole. Instead, we are encouraged to get to know her as an individual, which is far more powerful – and, invariably, heartbreaking – whatever one’s position on agriculture. Arnold has spoken about Luma as a ‘worker’, which of course she is, albeit unwittingly: it is striking how often her and her calf’s life resembles that of modern human labour, funnelled and jostled, restrained, instructed, called for, moved on, let in, taken out. As Cow moves through a full year of her life, what is perhaps most moving is how much its rhythms are so much like our own.