Director Andrea Arnold has said of the subject of her latest film, “When I look at Luma, our cow, I see the whole world in her.” Luma is the titular “Cow” of Arnold’s first documentary project, shot over the course of several years at Park Farm in Kent, England. Working with cinematographer Magda Kowalcyzk, Arnold gets up close and personal with Luma and her bovine buddies—to the point where the camera and mic are frequently bumped—and doesn’t so much attempt to project any specific human thoughts or feelings onto Luma, as she does invite the viewer to observe and empathize with her.
“Cow” unfolds at a slow yet mesmerizing pace, and a connection between Luma and the viewer is established early with a lengthy shot looking straight into Luma’s face. As she moos every few seconds, her dark eyes twinkle with what I read as unspoken sadness, but what others may glean a slightly different emotion from. That’s part of the magic of this film, which utilizes no narration to explain where we are or what we are watching, and in fact keeps the human figures who work on the farm at arm’s length as much as possible, either observing them in the background or avoiding their faces, their voices for the most part remaining a low murmur amidst the mooing. The straightforward events depicted on screen revolving around the routine of daily life on a dairy farm aren’t up for interpretation, but what the cows think and feel about a life cooped up inside, and the ethics around harnessing their lives solely for human consumption, is. Arnold may not be trying to make an explicit case for veganism or, if you want to make that stretch, female suffering, but she does come as close as possible to depicting this environment from the cows’ perspective, and it’s difficult not to view the milking machinery, cramped confines of their pens, and the rigors of a life where one is forced to have babies, have said babies taken away from them as soon as they are born, and be otherwise herded around and pushed and pulled at, as terrifying.
“Cow” does boast a few suggestive editing flourishes, like the fireworks exploding in the distance during a scene where a bull is brought in to impregnate Luma, or the cuts made between a close-up of Luma’s face and a plane flying overhead, a gateway to a larger world that she will never reach. But “Cow” is most captivating in its simplicity, from the long shots of white cows dotting the horizon against dark night sky, to the close-ups of those eyes and their unfathomable depths. As much as Arnold, a filmmaker whose narrative films all contain a heavy dose of realism, manages to find some beauty in the pastoral, she is unflinching when it comes to depicting its horrors, from a hard-to-watch scene where a calf is dehorned to the film’s shocking but inevitable conclusion. An idealized portrait of life on the farm this is not. The observational nature of the film and its runtime, which still feels a bit longer than necessary for this subject, may try some viewers’ patience, and yet “Cow” is so immersive and so concentrated on the cows and their movements, it gives a lot to consider to those who open themselves up to this story’s power and pain.
“Cow” opens in select theaters and will be available to watch on demand on April 8. Runtime: 98 minutes.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.