Tuesday 15 February 2022

On demand: "Cow"

The Andrea Arnold cinematic menagerie continues to expand. Thus far we've had the shorts Dog and Wasp (currently streamable via MUBI); aquatic life and white horses in 2009's Fish Tank; the various fauna of 2011's Wuthering Heights
. Arnold moved away from this she-bought-a-zoo approach in 2016's American Honey, distracted by the ready wildness of her young leads, but her latest Cow is nature in close-up: a 90-minute non-fiction study of the circle of bovine life on a commercial farm in Kent, from the birth of a calf (a gooier spectacle here than it was in City Slickers) to a final desultory feed, and a punchline straight out of Alan Clarke. (It's Cow as in Elephant.) The film thus trots along in the hoofprints of last year's critical fancy Gunda, which did much the same with a pig as a focal point, albeit at a respectful remove, and with far more evident artifice. Ever the realist, Arnold sets her camera at cow height (you worry for cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk's back and knees), following a dairy cow named Luma as she pokes forlornly around a darkened, muddy barn and surrounds. Seen front on, Luma sometimes seems to confront us quizzically, mooing sounds to the effect of "what are you looking at?" like an actress fleeing the paparazzi outside a divorce court. Whenever the camera tails in Luma's wake, we can't help but contemplate the pendulous udders swinging between hind legs that sporadically kick out at us, and the sheer amount of unidentified, unthinkable stuff hanging from her arse. If you're watching at home, I'd advise you to set your tea tray to one side whenever the vet shows up: within seconds, he's assuming what must be described as the James Herriot stance - gloved arm elbow deep in rear - to check on what we're informed is a twisted uterus. (A technical term: "Clean on vaginal.") You only hope this medical matter has been resolved by the time of the grimly funny setpiece in which Luma is mounted by the farm's prize bull to a soundtrack of the Annie Mac show and Bonfire Night fireworks. This is not, then, as pretty a picture as the gleamingly monochrome, sundappled Gunda, but then that plainly isn't Arnold's goal.

Luma's is a decidedly limited life, for one thing: her days are spent being prodded from one metal pen to the next, occasionally being strapped into a vast industrial milking machine. Her calves - six, according to one onlooker - have their flanks branded with numbers, their ears tagged and, in the most distressing sequence, holes seared into their skulls for reasons withheld. As Luma was led into a separate area of the barn to nuzzle her offspring, the phrase "visiting hours" popped into my head - and, in its glum routine, Cow often resembles a prison movie, the kind of eyeopener filmmakers typically assemble to raise awareness of the conditions in which man pens others up. Arnold doesn't need to show any Kurt Zouma-like breaches of protocol - the farm workers we see are nice, surprisingly photogenic folks doing a job to the best of their abilities - because the stuff that makes you wince here has long been factored into the processes of commercial farming. Will Cow change the eating habits of a generation, as Bambi and Babe did before it? Unlikely, I'd say: if you're a vegetarian, it will confirm your choices, and if you like a burger every now and again, you'll again see exactly what you've always overlooked whenever you're peckish and passing a Wimpy. What the film has for sure is Arnold's nose for the dramatic - which immediately elevates Cow over Gunda's snuffling monotony - and her rare capacity to foster subjectivity and empathy. There's a brilliant sequence that shows Luma standing in a field (as if on overnight release) and looking up towards the tail lights of a plane passing over her. Pigs might, but do cows have any concept of what it is to fly? It helps that Luma is possessed of vast, reflective black eyes: you can read almost anything you like into them. But it looked to me as though these cows were as bugged by bluebottles as we are, and are as tentative crossing a muddy pasture as you and I would be. I'm sure that, like any other creature, they could do without the holes in their head - but, then again, would a cow necessarily be any happier sat on the sofa, puzzling over the day's Wordle? I'm still not sure they would; I'm not sure we're happy doing that, half the time. The quiet achievement of Arnold's film is that it at least sets us to wonder.

Cow is now streaming via MUBI.

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