Andrea Arnold’s ‘Cow’: Film Review

Arnold (‘American Honey’) returns with her first feature-length documentary, chronicling several years in the life of a dairy cow in England.

Let’s get the bad puns out of the way first: Andrea Arnold’s Cow is a mooooving and udderly intimate portrait of bovine life as experienced on a farm in rural England.

It’s also a nearly wordless, yet extremely loud and incredibly in-your-face argument for veganism — or at least against the mass production of milk products.


The Bottom Line

Even cows get the blues.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Première)
Director: Andrea Arnold


1 hour 34 minutes

Screening in Cannes’ new Première section, the film represents Arnold’s first feature-length documentary, applying her characteristic kitchen-sink realism and quotidian poetry to a world where animals exist solely under human control, serving as mere supply chains for our unlimited appetites. Yet as Cow reveals in one scene after another, livestock can have feelings, too. In fact, these animals are much closer to us than we’d like to imagine.

Coming in the wake of Viktor Kosakovskiy’s well-received pig chronicle Gunda, which was distributed by Neon last year, and the excellent 2011 French doc Bovines by Emmanuel Gras, Arnold’s movie is another worthy attempt to depict the life of farm animals from the inside — to showcase the behavior of creatures we tend ignore as we pass them by on the highway, or else that we simply choose to ignore because it’s easier that way.

Working closely with Polish cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk, whose impressively acrobatic camerawork gets down and dirty to the point that the lens sometimes takes a few direct hits, Arnold plunges us straight into her subject’s point-of-view and never leaves it until the bitter end, during a final scene that’s shocking in its bluntness.

The subject in question is a massive female dairy cow named Luma, who, when we first meet her, is giving birth to a calf with the help of a few caring and hardworking farmers. Right away, the cruelty of her existence becomes apparent when mother and child are separated, Luma crying out in desperation as her calf is carted off to another part of the farm, after which the two are rarely seen together.

While the baby is nursed with a bottle, Luma goes back to her day job, which is to have her udders pumped, along with dozens and dozens of other cows, by an industrial-sized rotating contraption that looks like the most boring ride at Bovine Disney. And despite the catchy pop tunes blasted on speakers inside the giant milking room, with hits by Billie Eilish and, for a Christmas special, The Pogues, this is not a happy place to be.

The fact that many of the songs are by women underscores how what we are witnessing is really a mass case of female suffering. Not that the cows are deliberately treated badly by the farmers, many of whom are women themselves, and all of whom seem to be concerned for their livestock’s well-being. It’s the “being” that Arnold shows to be the problem — the brutal monotony of a contained life where you can only walk around in small circles, mostly indoors; where you have to keep getting pregnant in order to keep giving milk; where you’re never given the chance to make a connection with your own children (of which Luma has six).

Editors Rebecca Lloyd, Jacob Schulsinger and Nicolas Chaudeurge keep the action, which is entirely limited to the animals’ routines on the farm, for the most part captivating. They also play around with the Kuleshov Effect to hint at what Luma may be seeing or thinking, cutting from extreme close-ups of her face to POVs of trains passing or planes flying overhead, or to Luma’s reaction shots when her newborn calves are removed from the pen. There’s even a cheeky sex scene where a bull is brought in to impregnate her, a suggestive R&B song playing in the background and fireworks exploding in the distance.

At one point more than halfway through the film, Arnold follows Luma and her troop as they’re finally released into the open so that they can graze in the farm’s lush surrounding fields. We’ve been stuck inside with them for so long that the freedom they suddenly experience becomes ours as well: We’re thrilled to breathe in the fresh air and bathe in the sunlight, to wander around and take long naps on the grass, to eat and sleep at will. For a brief, divine moment, Cow shows us what a cow’s life could be, were we not there.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Première)
Production companies: Halycon Pictures, BBC Film, Doc Society
Director: Andrea Arnold
Producer: Kat Mansoor
Executive producers: Rose Garnett, Maxyne Franklin, Sandra Whipham
Director of photography: Magda Kowalczyk
Editors: Rebecca Lloyd, Jacob Schulsinger, Nicolas Chaudeurge
Sales: MK2 Films (International); Submarine Entertainment (U.S./Canada)

1 hour 34 minutes