Andrea Arnold’s long-awaited fifth feature is a remarkable and visceral assault on the senses.
Andrea Arnold’s films are never an easy ride. She has said that, “people have quite a physical experience with them”. A master of kitchen-sink realism, her uncompromising and exploratory style focuses on experiences of women in austere scenarios fighting for control over their lives. Engaging, painful and beautiful, her work tends to have a visceral after-effect, and such is the case with her first documentary, Cow – a self-professed labour of love.
The meat and dairy industry is a system that tears families apart, stripping maternity away from its most docile victims. It’s under these circumstances that single mother Luma sees her newborn taken away from her, merely a few hours after giving birth. The camera follows Luma from behind, gazing on as an umbilical cord sways back and forth while her cries grow increasingly louder.
Her pain is as ineffable as it is expressive, gauged through a series of looks and cries that appear to convey anguish. There is no commentary, no narration, and farm workers are (ever so briefly) shown in a neutral light, getting on with their jobs which involve various bodily intrusions, horn burnings, forced impregnations and milk extractions. The hyperspecific pop sound of Kali Uchis, Jorja Smith and Mabel reverberates from the farm radio speakers – a jarring soundtrack to the cows’ everyday existence within the cramped industrial space.
Shot in Arnold’s characteristic handheld style, which evokes a sense of immediacy, we rest on Luma’s eye level and seldom break away from her perspective. The camera’s presence is neither invasive nor benign, while the jittery shakycam technique heightens a feeling of nausea and disorientation that sets in early on.
Time, space and mobility are signified by occasional shots of airplanes and birds flying in the sky, while the restricted and routine movements of the cows in the overcrowded milking parlour and cattle corral are caught in a state of inertia. Violated and abused for her milk, Luma is ultimately confined and tethered to a world to which she doesn’t belong.
Cow won’t be for everyone, but it’s by no means a film that tells you what to make of it. It’s a silent portrait of life in captivity that’s radical in its simplicity as it soberly invites viewers to reckon with the feelings of a sentient, non-human other. Its observational mode keeps it from being didactic or manipulative in any way, and it adopts an intimacy that evokes the deepest empathy. Luma’s pain is never spectacle.
Of course, the politics of Arnold’s films are never explored conventionally or explicitly. They lie in her sensory techniques, the murky counter-narratives and affective capacities of her marginalised subjects. It’s not news to anyone that cows are commodities abused for profit, and you know from the get-go how Luma’s story ends, but that doesn’t make the ending any less impactful, and that feeling stays with you for a while.