There are points in Andrea Arnold’s Cow that are incredibly effective, though often for different reasons. For being such an arguably straightforward work, Cow feels pulled in a few different stylistic directions. It takes the form of a narrationless (voiceless, except for some background chatter of farm workers) documentary that observes, primarily, a single cow named Luna. It does, however, narrativise her life, putting things in an expected, chronological structure that gives the overall work a clear shape. This also means the film abides by audience expectation and the, let’s say more emotive, moments that you know will happen certainly do happen. Yet, at points, the film is more clearly artistic in intent, pushing the camera in a polemical way to focus on particular discomforts or repeated sufferings. Cow certainly wants to present a viewpoint on the dairy industry, or the lives of cows in general, but also wants to be the work that hangs back and just watches. In the end, you may be left feeling that choosing one clear direction would have worked better.
One of the best moments in the film is towards the end. Frequently, you see how the dairy farmers play pop music in the background while milking the cows. This becomes the film’s soundtrack, fitting in with Andrea Arnold’s career trend of using pop music so interestingly in her narrative feature films (this being her first documentary). The music exists in the background, tinny and at a clear distance from the action. It is a nice continuation of how, throughout the work, we are placed with the cows and not with the people. The music exists, but it feels removed. Yet, it is still able to emotionally underscore moments. The specific moment that comes to mind is how a cover of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love is emotively connected with a thoughtful and soulful presentation of Luna. The camera focuses, as it so often does, on the cow’s eye. Cow’s eyes are famously emotive, beautiful even. Matching sonic beauty, an aching beauty at that, with visual beauty, that is equally aching in its emotional ambiguity (a blank canvas of an eye that allows the viewer to project a deep sadness and loneliness), is a powerful combination. Yet, it is moments like this that present the film as it could be, not perhaps as it is.
There is an interesting undercurrent in the film to do with intrusiveness. Arnold has spent time to get the cows used to her handheld camera, allowing her to fade into the background and for life to exist in the foreground, ostensibly unbothered. Yet, it remains true that a camera operator exists beyond the boundary of each frame, inserting humanity into the animal world. To an extent, this makes sense, as the film is about how humanity have overtaken the animal, not allowing it to be animal (it is only ever constrained). But, the approach of the camera is to focus on the cow as separate, to link us to her. The perspective is almost always close to her head, limiting our viewpoints and presenting the cow’s view of the world (or how the cow is constrained by the world). But, the operator is there and does have an impact, one that goes uncommented on apart from the times where the camera is hit or jostled (which are lovely little moments that highlight the form and really sell the reality the film needs). This setup only really becomes an issue with the humans, who act as if they are not being filmed and like there isn’t somebody skulking around filming cows at cow eye level. There’s an uncommented on artifice here that is more potent still because the cows, bless them, love looking at the camera. Which is amazing. These interactions where the cows are drawn to the thing that is looking at them are some of the most beautiful and effective moments, the moments that push the message of connection with, and recognition of, the animals we can so easily ignore.
The linear narrativising of the work does produce this connection, but it also perhaps limits it from giving a wider and more effective portrait of the industry. The imagery is presented as casual, as prosaic. But, it is the moments that are more cinematically poetic, or more overt, that really work. The constrained shots of milking machines, or the cuts to the larger apparatus that dominates these cows lives, are the ones that provoke the most thought. Arguably, Cow is too focused on trying to give a humanised portrait of an animal, one forced through an intimate lens, that it doesn’t present enough of the wider issue. It is an interesting divergence from Gunda (2021), the film’s obvious contemporary, a documentary that leans fully into arthouse and presents the animal as animal. Where Gunda gains its great success (it is a brilliant film) from showing the animal world as specifically unhuman, Cow isn’t as clearly defined. A more dispassionate and cold view of the human world restricting these animals may have been more effective, with a more clinical lens. Arnold’s lens is loving but the documentary realism does not fully match this lyrical intent. It is a very orchestrated work that presents itself as verité, while occasional cutting to more impressionistic moments (a cut away from cows beginning to mate to a firework in the sky is maybe the film at its weakest).
For all of this, though, Cow is powerful. In just wanting to observe a cow, following them from their point of view, it perhaps doesn’t find the voice it could. Though, this only becomes apparent due to the more overtly constructed moments that make it evident that this is a film trying to make a point. This being the case, the incidental interest and reality that Cow captures is valuable. It makes us concentrate on the actual lives of animals, a thing we so easily ignore or forget. It is an empathetic work and it is an emotional one. Several moments are astonishing but the overall structure doesn’t always elevate things. The arguments that underpin Cow could be more forceful or more intentionally presented, or it could actually be more purely observational. It is an indication that the language of documentary and of narrative feature films are different, and that one can’t just transfer over and be as brilliant as before. But, it’s still a fascinating work and, at times, very important.