Andrea Arnold turns her astute observational skills to the bovine world in Cow, a Cannes Premiere with a difference. It’s a documentary that follows a cow on an English farm over time, watching her intently as she gives birth and gives milk. Humans are only featured when they enter her orbit, and snatches of dialogue inform us of basic information. Her name is Luma, she is protective of her calves, and she isn’t getting any younger.
As with Cannes Film Festival favorites Fish Tank and American Honey, Arnold has cast a charismatic screen newcomer and kept the camera close to her throughout. While Luma may not be able to speak, the camera lingers on both her eyes and her point of view, inviting the viewer to project their own assumptions onto her. Outside of overheard dialogue, we’re not informed of any of the processes of the farm, so we experience everything through the eyes of Luma and her calves. Details that might seem humane when explained from a distance, seem threatening and restricting up close, from the milking machines to the cauterizing of a calf’s horns.
Arnold is careful not to demonize the farmworkers: we hear them speak affectionately to the cows and try to soothe them as they steer them here and there. These are people doing a job, cheerfully and matter of factly. But this film is not about them. It’s about encouraging empathy with an animal that can’t speak for itself — and if the editing choices invite anthropomorphism, then many will be convinced that the subject deserves it. There’s a liberating feeling of freedom when the cows are taken out into the fields to run and graze, and a sense of pain when they resist coming back to their pens.
Ever the pop music fan, Arnold uses a soundtrack of chiefly female singers, some of whom appear to be playing on the radio in the background. We hear a BBC Radio 1 DJ, and we see a farmer wearing a Santa hat as The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” plays. In what may or may not be a convenient coincidence, Luma is mated with a bull on a night where fireworks are in the sky. The camera captures the foreplay, pulling away at a crucial moment to see an explosion in the sky. It’s playful, perhaps, but also a little disturbing: this is a portrait of a female with very little agency. The farmworkers rejoice when she later has a girl, underlining the commercial reality behind the cows’ existence.
Like the recent pig doc Gunda, this can definitely be taken as a pro-vegan statement; in fact it plays out like a less pointed version of Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar speech in 2019. And while the chosen farm is more humane than many they could have picked, it’s still an impersonal, modern system; Kelly Reichardt’s period bovine First Cow arguably had a better deal. Cow may be slow moving, but it gives patient audiences plenty to chew on — especially with the last, devastating, shot.