LFF 2021 film review: Cow
Matthew Turner | On 12, Oct 2021
Director: Andrea Arnold
Watch Cow online in the UK: MUBI (Date TBC)
Cow screened at the 2021 London Film Festival. Find out more about how the festival works and what’s playing online here.
An intimate portrait of the life of a dairy cow might seem like something of a departure for filmmaker Andrea Arnold, but in the context of films centred on the female experience, it has a surprising amount in common with her four previous feature films, Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights and American Honey. Apparently a long-held passion project for the director, Cow is both an immersive and powerful documentary.
The film begins on a British dairy farm, as the film’s bovine star, Luma, is giving birth – a scene that will trigger immediate flashbacks for anyone who has watched All Creatures Great and Small on TV. After licking the gelatinous afterbirth from the baby, mother and child are swiftly separated, prompting mournful mooing from Luma, in the first of many unexpectedly heart-breaking moments.
From then on, Arnold’s cameras remain tightly focused on Luma – so tightly, in fact, that she occasionally bumps into the camera with a resounding thud that makes the audience jump each time. We then follow her day-to-day life over the course of what seems like months, as she experiences grazing (in lovely, bucolic sequences), milking, being fed, forced mating, sleeping and ultimately giving birth again – before she is euphemistically put out to pasture in an inevitable (but still shocking and genuinely upsetting) final sequence.
Throughout, the perspective is entirely Luma’s, with the cameras remaining at her eye-level. Consequently, we very rarely see human faces (we see a fair few arms and legs) and the only human voices we hear are usually barking orders to the herd of cows, sometimes oddly referred to as “girlies”.
Occasionally, Arnold does cut away to check in on the progress of Luma’s calf, who has a substantially different life. That said, both mother and calf endure some shared hardships that are difficult to watch, whether it’s getting their ears tagged or being de-horned with a cauterising iron.
Arnold indulges in some lighter moments too, not least the aforementioned mating sequence, which cuts first to fireworks and then to the two post-coital participants, both of whom give amusing looks to camera. If Arnold engaged in a tiny spot of cow-wrangling for that moment, you can hardly blame her.
Arnold also cheats a bit with the soundtrack choices – they’re presented as diegetic, as if the farm workers are listening to the radio, but the songs are clearly deliberately chosen to comment on the cow action in progress. The choice of closing credits song – Garbage’s Milk – is also inspired.
Just as with Viktor Kosakovskiy’s Gunda – similar idea, but about a pig – the overall effect is intensely immersive, giving the audience time and space to ruminate on the life of the animal in question and, by extension, our own relationship with said animal. By the desperately sad end – as Lula lumbers and stumbles towards her fate with painful-looking, massively swollen udders – it’s impossible not to be deeply mooved.
Cow will be released by MUBI UK at a future date.