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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

In 1998, Andrea Arnold brought her first film, a 10-minute Critics’ Week short, to Cannes. The story of a woman in a reckless tailspin following a miscarriage, it features a striking closeup of a leaking breast, and is titled Milk. With irresistible symmetry, her 2021 Cannes film, a dialogue-free documentary about dairy cattle playing in the inaugural Cannes Premiere section, is called Cow, and it is not merely a coincidence of titles.

Cow’s star, a handsome, doleful Holstein-Friesian named Luma, living – if, by the end of Cow we can still bear to call it that – on a working British dairy farm, is explicitly a captive to the biological consequences of motherhood. Kept permanently pregnant in order to continually produce milk, which is pumped out of her by massive H. R. Giger-style machinery, her existence here is a clanging, endless cycle of pumping, impregnation, gestation and birth, with only the briefest window of mother-calf bonding as she licks her offspring clean of afterbirth.

Hers is world of metal bars, chutes and grates, of the indignity of being hoisted into a contraption solely designed to render cattle immobile while their hooves are trimmed with ferocious-looking angle grinders. Even though the farm workers we occasionally glimpse are not especially cruel (indeed often they call Luma by name fondly and cheerily encourage the herd with cries of “Come on, girls!”) there is something worse than cruelty in the stark fact of so much specialized mechanical development invested in the process of turning living creatures into livestock – a callous, industrial practicality which must disturb those of us who enjoy the froth on a cappuccino or a cheese toastie.

The film’s value as a deeply embedded, searingly realist portrayal of modern animal husbandry, and the authenticity of Arnold’s passionate empathy for her subject’s bovinity are never in doubt. But while in her pre-screening introduction Arnold described Cow as “a very quiet film”, in fact it is loud and abrasively noisy, shot in Magda Kowalczyk’s impressively athletic but often unintelligibly shaky handheld (those prone to motion sickness are advised to sit well back from the screen). These choices are effectively jarring, inserting us into Luma’s plight like we’re being parachuted onto Normandy Beach, but they can also be counterproductive to the film’s more thoughtful ambitions.

In gentler moments we’re invited to imagine what Luma is thinking or feeling, to look out through her black eyes as she stares into the camera lens, or to feel the anguish in her plaintive mooing as her latest calf is bundled away. But that shuddering camera, the atemporal editing by which it’s hard to know if the last shot happened a second or a year ago and the self-consciously incongruous pop music that starts as though playing in the cowshed but then expands to flood the soundtrack with pathos or irony (a mating scene is set to an R&B groove while fireworks burst in the distance) all serve to remind us of the human commentary at work here – and by inference, therefore, of the unbridgeable distance between what we imagine Luma’s experience of life might be and what it actually is.

In amongst the muck and the mucus and the shots tracking the gory umbilical rope that trails from Luma’s hindquarters as she’s shunted away from a calving, there are occasional respites. Cows chew on fresh grass beneath trees in the evening; planes fly overhead into a world impossibly larger than any Luma can know; calves frolic in the sun unaware how short their calfhoods will be. Here we feel Arnold’s hand most strongly; she has always had an astonishing knack for finding lyricism in the most unlikely places and for imbuing an evocative ache into stories of marginalized characters – usually female – chafing against restrictions in an effort to feel, if not to be, free. On one level, Luma is just the latest such, but that does require a level of anthropomorphism that feels slightly presumptuous.

It’s one area in which the inevitable comparison with Victor Kossakovsky’s black-and-white wonder Gunda (2020) does Cow few favours. Perhaps that film’s calm rigour might seem too sedate and prettified for the point Arnold’s trying to make about the casual brutality of Luma’s life (and, inevitably, the other thing). But Gunda’s singlemindedness makes a more compelling plea for empathy with our animal brethren than Cow, which loses some of the power of Arnold’s undoubted passion in the shaky split focus between Luma’s imagined interior life and her use to humans as little more than a living carcass.

Further reading

Where to begin with Andrea Arnold

By Brogan Morris

Where to begin with Andrea Arnold

Gunda gets down and dirty with a sow

By Ben Nicholson

Gunda gets down and dirty with a sow

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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