Cow (2021) Review: The Short and (In)significant life of a Milch Cow
In the middle of Cow (2021), Luma, our protagonist, gives birth to her second child in the documentary. Andrea Arnold’s camera follows the mother and the newborn. Andrea doesn’t waste a frame and captures the essence of the mother-child relationship from up close, as close as you can get near a mother nurturing her new-born.
One of the dairy owners tells Andrea Arnold not to get between the mother and the calf. In that seemingly innocent, caring, and naïve sentence lies a profound and bitter or a rather caustic irony. “Don’t get between her and her child” a mere few minutes of caressing and nurturing her baby, and they are separated. Dairy cows give birth to 20-30 calves in their lifetime. All of them are separated from their mothers and put into pens for milk and meat.
Andrea Arnold, the celebrated British filmmaker of Fish Tank, American Honey, treads her lens on the dairy firm. The protagonist is a cow- Luma- whose life started as a dairy cow and will inevitably end as one. She chronicles the four grueling years of her life where she is artificially inseminated, forced mated to produce a constant source of milk, and eventually the meat. Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk takes her camera up close with a few butt-ins received from Luma and her calf at times.
But, unlike a documentary, there’s no guiding narration to explain away things or put this into context or perspective. Dairy farming has been accepted as a natural practice for a long time, so we don’t need things to be put into perspective. Gazing, trotting, mooing cows on the vast grassland outside dairy farms is nothing special. The bovine gaze, placid eyes might not belie a sense of discomfort or pain. Unless you see the horrid dehorning or hooves trimming.
Cows aren’t magisterial creatures either or exotic animals; not dairy cows. Their fat, protruding, bulging udder can, at best, be conjured up as a metaphor of grotesque human greed and a symbol of hideous consumerism. Cows, quite expectedly, have fled under the radar of documentaries about natural animals. (Is that an indication that there’s something outrageously unnatural about the entire process of dairy farming?)
But Andrea channels empathy and subjectivity through various ways. Consider that repeated shot of airplanes flying overhead or the long shot under the starry sky where Luna gazes at the blinking light of an overhead airplane or the frequent comings and goings of the train. If that somehow resembles a prisoner’s longing for freedom, that’s Andrea’s credit. She merely states the obvious. She shows what we have overlooked and tries to make us feel what we know we would feel if we peer over the anthropocentric wall and extend our attention to the other side.
Peter Bradshaw, in his review in Guardian, poses an interesting question. Referring to Tilda Swinton’s quote, from the Mark Cousins’ documentary The Story of Film, where she has said that the donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) gave the greatest performance in the cinematic history because it was simply there without any artifice or guile. Bradshaw asks, if these kinds of films like Cow and Gunda are social realism films for animals?
I don’t aim to answer the question in a definite sense. But Bradshaw only poses another question, a rather rhetorical one perhaps, whether the cows have a sense of ending coming for them? Perhaps they do, perhaps they can sense what is right around the corner.
The edginess and agitation were their final resistance before a coup de grace. What Andrea’s documentary shows is that if animals can have empathy, love, anger, longing, and sadness, they very well might have a sense of ending coming for them. The question is can we truly grasp that?
Cow is now streaming on Mubi.
Author’s Biographical Note: Parnab Bhattacharya is a freelance writer, currently working as an intern at Explore Screen.
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