“Cow” opens with the closeup of a gooey calf yanked from the vaginal canal, and follows her all the way through her rough, solitary existence. The small miracle of director Andrea Arnold’s experiential documentary is that it enacts its simple premise in straightforward terms, but assembles them into a profound big picture. Her subject, a dairy cow named Luma, grows up under the tutelage of farmers who seem, for all intents and purposes, looking out for her best interests. However, with Arnold centralizing her subject’s gaze, even their kindly background roles come into question. As Luma endures the monotony of her routine, “Cow” grows into a stirring, often sad contemplation of a life reduced to resources.
Arnold apparently spent years filming Luma’s life, as she grew from calf to dairy cow, mated with bulls, and roamed with her herd. Cinematographer Mada Kowalczyk’s camera gets close to the action at every chapter, even bumping into its subject more than once, as her serene and sometimes even somber gaze fills the frame. Every plaintive “moo” hints at some measure of emotion lurking just beneath our full comprehension.
There’s a certain obvious performative quality to the gimmick of the movie, but that same ingredient makes it possible to settle into Arnold’s concept all the way through. It’s impossible to fully conceive of the world through the eyes of one animal, but “Cow” gets much closer than any anthropomorphized Disney character ever could, with the kind of sound and image deep dive that the term “pure cinema” was invented to describe.
“Cow” marks Arnold’s first trip into the non-fiction arena, and it’s a far more elemental piece than the tough, raucous character studies of “American Honey” or “Fish Tank” (though the farm country backdrop of her “Wuthering Heights” adaptation could be seen as as a quasi-prequel). At the same time, the movie is consistent with her other work in the way that it wrestles with the bleak nature of the world while acknowledging its transcendent beauty at the same time.
There are moments in “Cow,” as Luma gazes at the stars looming above her pasture, or enjoys a fleeting post-coital embrace, where some glimmer of contentment sneaks in just long enough to feel the weight of its absence later. Arnold isn’t trying to outdo National Geographic at its own game. While humans hover on the edge of frames or its backgrounds, the movie doesn’t bother to supply much context beyond the occasional medical diagnosis (often paired with an invasive hand). Arnold’s most blatant editorializing comes with a series of musical choices, but by the time they arrive, she has laid the groundwork for a complete immersion into Luma’s story on her own terms.
The gamble of “Cow” isn’t exactly uncharted terrain. As recently as last year, the black-and-white odyssey “Gunda” delivered a wordless ode to the life of a pig and her ill-fated family, while the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have made tremendous attempts to mine poetry from the swirling chaos of the natural world with “Leviathan” and “Sweetgrass.” Arnold’s work borrows some aspects of these works but feels more intimately tied to Luma’s hardships, hinting at shades of a personality, even as it stops short of humanizing her. The cow is not a person. Instead, “Cow” invites humans to see the world as a cow.
Ultimately that takes the form of intricate details from her life. The unsteady slab of wood she’s forced to stand on while plugging into a milking machine, staring out at the mechanical sameness around her, encapsulates the frightening boundaries of her claustrophobic environment. It also gives the occasional wide shot, as when Luma stands silhouetted against a vast landscape, deep cathartic power. (And when she gets laid, Arnold can’t help give into the slightest overstatement by cutting away to fireworks.)
There are moments where “Cow” is on the verge of some grander observation before it doubles back to the cycle of circumstances that define Luma’s life, and it risks some measure of redundancy over the course of its 90 minutes. But it’s also the obvious work of a filmmaker eager to make her point in concise terms and call it a day. The experience settles into such an absorbing rhythm that its abrupt finale hits hard even if it’s inevitable from the start.
At the end of the day, Luma is reduced a product, herded from pens to fields and back again, and exploited to her fullest potential until that time is done. “Cow” doesn’t interrogate the motives behind that process — leave that to “Fast Food Nation” and its ilk — but it does a fine job of generating empathy from one scene to the next, and using that power to craft a hypnotic spell rife with significance. After all, what is life but a series of milking sessions followed by the dark void that awaits us all? “Cow” treats that question as a mission statement, stuns us into contemplation, and cuts to black.
“Cow” premiered in the Cannes Premiere section of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.