Cow review – Andrea Arnold’s first documentary is meaty slice of bovine socio-realism

The American Honey director details the life of dairy cows with unflinching and empathetic precision

With this documentary, Andrea Arnold has created a kind of agribusiness pastoral about the daily life of cows on a working dairy farm. Her camera simply gets up close and personal with cows as they moo and trot around and give birth and stare with mysterious placidity into the camera – sometimes thumping up against her sound mic with an almighty bang.

Arnold immerses herself in the bovine world as far as she is able, getting alongside the cows in the farm during the calving process, with the shots of ropes pulling on little hooves emerging from the mother, an image which hasn’t changed too much since the days of James Herriot and All Creatures Great and Small. We see the cows out in the field on a bright summer day, and sometimes we see them out there at night, in an exotically conceived long shot: cows silhouetted against trees under a stark moon. We hear human voices from the very beginning, often cheerfully calling the cows “girlies!” – no word could be less suitable for these mighty beasts. But we don’t see any people until the very end.

As for the calves, we watch them suckling from artificial milk teats and getting dehorned with a cauterising iron, a violent moment which had everyone in the audience covering their eyes. But of course, we all know what violent event is coming, and the question is: how much time and space is this film going to devote to it?

Just as with Viktor Kosakovskiy’s recent film Gunda, about a pig, the aim is to try to see, or guess at, what it is like to be a farm animal, or simply any sort of animal. Richard Mabey talked about unofficial countryside; this kind of movie is unofficial natural history. Cows and pigs in the UK don’t usually get the kind of David Attenborough treatment reserved for lions and tigers.

Like Gunda, the most eerie moments come when we look directly into the cow’s eyes, as she is perhaps directly looking into ours – or at any rate, the camera lens – and mooing, repeatedly, intently or even meaningfully. What is the cow seeing? And thinking and feeling? Does the cow understand the concept of its own death, which is right around the corner? Are these questions even meaningful, or should we simply concede to the animals their own unknowability? They just exist. Mark Cousins’ documentary The Story of Film earlier this week in Cannes quoted Tilda Swinton to the effect that the donkey in Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic Au Hasard Balthasar (1966) gave the greatest performance in cinema history, because it simply, unarguably was – there was no question of any artifice. Maybe this kind of documentary is a social realism for animals.

And so to the terrible main event. Films like Georges Franju’s classic short film Blood of the Beasts (1949) or Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread (2005) concentrated on the gruesome reality of what it means to kill animals on an industrial scale. Arnold doesn’t exactly do this – the coup de grace is delivered to a single cow right at the end, and the camera moves in on its great, dark, unseeing eye. It is a moving moment in a way, though there is arguably a kind of evasion or dishonesty in showing just one cow’s sad end. All these cows are there for a single reason: to be used for milk and meat.

Having said this, there is something very heartfelt and committed about Andrea Arnold’s film: a poignancy and intimacy.

• Cow is released on 14 January in UK cinemas, and on 11 February on Mubi.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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