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MOST documentaries chronicle exceptional lives that anyone would be curious about, or highly ordinary ones that warrant a second look. Andrea Arnold’s new film does both, providing an immersive look into the world of a dairy cow.
Arnold is the celebrated director of projects as diverse as Red Road and Fish Tank, which explore working-class Britain; the Shia LaBeouf epic American Honey; a 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights; and episodes of Transparent and Big Little Lies. In Cow, her fifth feature and first documentary, Arnold turns her trademark unflinching gaze on a subject that is both familiar and entirely other: a cow named Luna on a cattle farm in the English countryside.
Six years in the making, the BAFTA-nominated Cow follows Luna in her day-to-day life, from grazing and mating to birthing and milking. It is about as immersive and visceral a depiction of a non-human being as one can imagine, with Arnold filming from Luna’s perspective as much as possible and using zero narration.
For many viewers, the first surprise may be the immediate, easy charisma of her subject: in an early scene, Luna holds the camera’s gaze, mooing insistently, in such a way that it leaves the audience in no doubt about her curiosity and appraising intelligence. Likewise, shots of her caring for her just-born calf and taking obvious pleasure from an open field suggest a multifaceted mind, which is portrayed clearly and without sentimentality.
For an essentially quiet film, sound is used to great effect in Cow. Mournful pop songs by Billie Eilish and others are piped into the milking shed, adding pathos to the scenes of Luna’s everyday life, while snatches of chatter from her largely faceless farmers lend them structure. The emotion we come to feel for Luna, our investment in her well-being, is organic and earned.
The only point where Arnold relaxes her commitment to realism is a late-night mating sequence, set to R&B pop music and with spliced-in fireworks, a moment that concludes with some post-coital cuddling. The surreal comedy of the scene excuses any charge of anthropomorphism, as does the sequence where Luna is being milked on Christmas morning by a farmer wearing a Santa hat, set to the sound of Fairytale of New York.
This is no hard-bitten slaughterhouse exposé: it is clear that Luna is well cared for, even loved. But the life of a dairy cow is, by definition, one that is punctured with sudden violence. Though Cow may not depict the industrial-scale horrors of animal production, Arnold doesn’t shy away from depicting the indignities and intrusions that feature in a dairy cow’s world. An early scene of calves being dehorned with a cauterising iron reportedly had critics at the Sundance film festival covering their eyes.
The end, when it comes, manages to be at once inevitable and shocking – the harshest possible awakening from the dreamlike state viewers have been lulled into. It encapsulates the film’s understated political point: that, from beginning to end, this is a life led entirely on humanity’s terms, for the production of milk and meat. Luna may not suffer more than is essential to the existence of a dairy cow, but is that a price we are willing to accept?
In honouring the sacrifice of one farm animal, Arnold quietly but insistently invokes the spectre of far more – many of which aren’t treated with the same dignity as Luna, even if we choose to remain ignorant of the details.
Empathetic and often unexpectedly moving, Cow may not instantly turn you vegan, as more aggressive accounts of animal production might – but you will never see its subject in the same way again. Equally, having gently led us to assume the bovine gaze, what may be most unsettling is how we see ourselves.
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