The brutish life of a British dairy cow is the subject of this unusual, gripping documentary from director Andrea Arnold. “Cow” screened in the new Cannes Premiere section at this year’s festival, where Arnold is also serving as head of the Un Certain Regard jury and where she has previously won awards for “Red Road,” “Fish Tank” and “American Honey.” Even her debut short, “Wasp,” was garlanded here on the Croisette.
Safe to say, Arnold has form — but her probing camera takes a different, risky slant here, being mostly attached to a beast called Luma. The gamble pays off handsomely and results in a uniquely fascinating experiment.
Although there are similarities with Russian film maker Victor Kossakovksy’s 2020 farmyard doc “Gunda,” Arnold’s film is far grittier and concerned with only one species and indeed one animal, although a couple of her calves are roped in for good measure.
The life of a cow, it turns out, is not much fun — an industrial, clanging and undignified set of processes that are so routine and ingrained their inherent cruelty has become accepted, even prettified. You won’t be singing “Old MacDonald” with the same jaunty abandon after watching this.
The main problem, on the surface, is why would you watch it? It’s certainly not a crowd pleaser, but there is remarkable film craft on display, plenty of moments of wonder and beauty, some heart-melting tenderness and a finale to match “The Irishman.”
While it is never particularly instructive to project human thoughts or emotions onto animals, you can’t help but indulge in anthropomorphic pondering when Luma looks you in the eye, or when she meticulously licks her own birth discharge off her newborn calf. We watch it in transfixing close-up, almost feeling that tongue on our own skin, thanks to the camerawork of Magda Kowalczyk.
Soon enough, mother and newborn are separated, Luma letting out huge bellows in response to her daughter’s distant bleats. She trudges through the daily rigmarole of getting milked, a system so rough and peremptory and efficient that you hover between disgust and admiration. (Strangely, watching Luma being herded about, I was reminded more than once of how they treat journalists here at Cannes …)
The calf is put through her paces — her ears stamped and labelled, a quick jab with vaccination needle and then, in a shocking sequence, having what looks like some kind of soldering iron applied to two spots on her skull which, I’m assuming, stunts the growth of any horns. A journey in a cattle truck to another pen feels like watching something from the Holocaust drama “Son of Saul.”
And yet, with even more daring, Arnold then films cow sex scenes with a kind of romance: A bull clambers on top set to the sounds of R&B singer Mabel, followed by a more ruminative passage, with some of the film’s rare wide shots, of our cow grazing at night under starry skies. Notably, this isn’t a film without affection or humor.
Soon enough, though, she’s having her hoofs shorn and clipped, clamped up in a huge metal machine that lays her on her side and then dumps her back out again.
It’s important to stress that the farmhands who are mostly out of the frame are gentle and loving and professional, full of “good girl” encouragements and patient goading and guiding. And it is partly this human interaction that makes “Cow” so compelling and unique, a piece of pure cinema that’s also loaded with political meaning about our dominion over nature and what we do to, I don’t know, get cheese.
The film’s theatrical prospects aren’t immediately apparent – I’m surely not the only one to joke that it should be shown on Mubi – but “Cow” feels like a vital and ground-breaking work of art, perhaps up there with Damien Hirst’s “Mother and Child (Divided)” sculpture. It gives any viewer plenty to chew on.