Andrea Arnold chews the cud with Luma, a dairy cow, in this intriguing documentary
Dir: Andrea Arnold. UK. 2021. 94 mins.
Andrea Arnold’s marginalised characters often feel powerless in their hostile environments — but all of them had more agency than the subject of her documentary debut. The intriguing, sometimes inscrutable, ultimately despondent Cow follows a dairy cow named Luma as she goes about her day, closely minded by her handlers who make sure she’s milked and impregnated at regular intervals. Eschewing any semblance of a narrative — and refusing to make the animal artificially “adorable” to appeal to viewers — the film is open to multiple interpretations, although it seems likely Arnold has found in Luma her latest wild creature longing to be free.
There remains something unknowable about Luma, but while that proves a limitation, Cow also turns it into a strength
Comparisons to the similarly observational Gunda are inevitable, and certianly Cow lacks the formal rigour or exquisite cinematography of Victor Kossakovsky’s more fascinating and immersive project. This Cannes Premiere will court buyers on the strength of Arnold’s name, although the film’s challenging approach could scare off fans of mainstream nature documentaries with feel-good storylines.
Luma is a cow at Park Farm who, as Cow begins, is giving birth to her latest calf. Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk gets close enough to Luma that we see every detail of this primal act, and after that her handheld camera rarely strays far from Luma’s side. And because Arnold doesn’t anthropomorphise Luma — there’s no “character” voiceover or even explanations of what we’re watching — we’re left to interpret the cow’s reactions on our own.
Considering that Arnold is a self-avowed nature lover, it’s safe to assume Cow is a paean to these industrious animals who provide us with so much — even though we rarely consider their circumstance. Still, the filmmaker finds enough nuance in her footage so that we see that the anonymous farmworkers are generally conscientious, even loving, toward the cows. If anything, Cow perceives both the animals and the humans as part of the same melancholy collective, each species putting in gruelling hours for the benefit of faceless consumers. Occasionally cutting to shots of airplanes and birds flying through the sky — symbols of gravity-defying escape — Arnold depicts the farm as a jail or prison camp.
But as much as the camera sticks close to Luma, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the audience truly “understands” her by film’s end. (She remains a stoic, solemn creature.) And because the documentary seemingly arbitrarily segues from scene to scene, the connections between moments is rarely obvious. The technique becomes a double-edged sword, for while it adeptly dramatises the monotony of Luma’s repetitive tasks — it’s time for her to be milked again — it can also leave Cow feeling baggy.
That said, within those loose rhythms, Arnold can surprise us with an understated moment that speaks to universal discontents. Farmworkers think nothing of plunging their arms deep into Luma’s uterus, the cow’s soulful, impenetrable eyes communicating everything and nothing. And always a master at blending pop songs with visuals, Arnold crafts a bittersweet juxtaposition between a scene of farmhands dutifully working around Christmastime and a radio playing the Pogues’ mournful ’Fairytale Of New York’.
While one suspects where Cow will ultimately go — the ending is actually subtly referenced earlier — the finale seems in keeping with Arnold’s career-long interest in how people (and now cows) make peace with unfulfilling lives. There remains something unknowable about Luma, but while that proves a limitation, Cow also turns it into a strength. We wonder what’s she thinking, and then we put ourselves in her place — and realise it’s not a great place to be.