Cow: Affecting but unsentimental portrait of animal life

Andrea Arnold’s film shows how we have stripped the character away from animal lives

Cow is sad. But it is not sad in the way Charlotte’s Web is sad

Film Title: Cow

Director: Andrea Arnold

Starring:

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 94 min

Fri, Jan 14, 2022, 05:00

   

It is Andrea Arnold’s mild misfortune that her first feature documentary, long in the planning, ended up arriving shortly after Viktor Kossakovsky’s much celebrated Gunda. That film took us through the travails of a busy pig.

As the title clarifies, Cow deals with a larger farmyard beast. Those who enjoyed the earlier film will find many points of comparison. Both focus on mothers. Both invite us to ponder our casual, rarely interrogated ministry over other species. Both seem to deal with largely responsible farmers who treat their animals well within the societally accepted parameters (the alternative might be too much to bear).

In Cow, we hear farm workers – many young and female – calling Luma, a dappled sweetheart, gently by name as they carry out health checks and perform grooming procedures. There is little dignity to the way she is imprisoned in a metal press while they file down her hoofs, but better that than active cruelty or neglect. Yet this remains a sad film that can find no way to a happy ending.

Cow is perhaps a little less openly manipulative than Gunda, but the director of Fish Tank and American Honey still gets us to identify with her lowing protagonist. Arnold’s decision to abandon her usual Academy ratio for a more conventional shape – down to the awareness that, whereas people are vertical, cows are horizontal? – allows in all the extraneous clatter and mess through which an average farm animal moves. We get to see her give birth twice. We know that the calf will not stay with the mother. Life in the sheds seems grim, but not exactly horrifying.

Pampered urbanites

Arnold occasionally layers music over the action to give the impression it is emerging diegetically from the farm workers’ speakers. Maybe it really is. The cows fail to join in the annual discourse when Fairytale of New York signals the arrival of Christmas. At any rate, there is little horror in the early stages, just a plodding, wearying lack of colour. I am willing to bet that Arnold will not thank me for comparing her work to that of Jeremy Clarkson, but both Cow and the recent, surprisingly touching Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon press home unsentimental realities to pampered urbanites. 

The film’s attitudes come into sharper focus when Luna and her companions are released into the fields at summer. As the protagonist bumps noses with neighbouring beasts and careers about the pasture, we realise that the earlier scenes offered only a substitute for life. Cattle have, as much as any other animal, had their character stripped from them by agricultural domestication. They are seen as masses of product rather than individual creatures. When Arnold frames Luma by a starry sky, we are made aware that their ancestors once got by just fine without our sinister, far from disinterested assistance.

Cow will not be to all tastes. Presented without voiceover or captions, it uses a mobile camera to capture snatches from the beast’s life over several years. If we were feeling mischievous we might dub it “Cowhood”, but that implies more sublimated narrative than we actually get. Kossakovsky went so far as to develop characters and design something a little like a plot. Despite conveying enormous sympathy for her subject, Arnold takes a less sentimental line. There are implicit arguments here about the monetisation of motherhood and about the human capacity to shut out unattractive truths. 

Cow does allow Luma her moments of joy and release. It is, nonetheless, only fair to point out that younger and more sensitive viewers should approach the ending with caution. It is sad. But it is not sad in the way Charlotte’s Web is sad.

On limited release from January 14th.