Natural life has long been a recurring presence in the films of Andrea Arnold, the English filmmaker behind the piercing character studies “American Honey” and “Fish Tank.” She finds beauty and intrigue in a buzzing wasp or the flutter of a moth’s wings, intriguing images in wordless conversation with her sharply focused human stories. She abandons the human part in her first nonfiction film, “Cow,” which follows the daily routines of a dairy cow named Luma. Shot over the course of nine years, the film follows Luma from the delivery of her first calf all the way to her unceremonious death. Under the camera’s empathizing focus, Arnold reveals the animal’s intangible aliveness through the subtle magic of slow cinema.
“It’s so powerful what we do really, isn’t it? Where you put the camera,” Arnold said. “I was reading about this woman who is a neuroscientist, and she was saying that she was fascinated with art and how filmmakers and artists can direct your view towards whatever they want you to be looking at. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s true. That’s what we do. Isn’t it?’ And it’s what artists do as well. They’re trying to focus your attention, your consciousness into something they want you to take note of, you know? And I think that’s what we all do.”
Embarking on the experimental project nearly a decade ago, Arnold wasn’t sure how exactly to pull off what she was envisioning. “Cow” is mostly devoid of dialogue, except for the background murmurings of the farmers who remain mostly out of view, with only the lower two-thirds of their bodies visible. Instead of wide full-body shots of the cows and their pastoral surroundings, the camera stays focused on Luma’s eyes and face.
“I always wanted to show her aliveness. And early on I wasn’t sure how we were going to do that,” Arnold said. “But when we started doing things, I realized that her eyes were absolutely the key thing. That we had to always have her head there as much as possible, and sticking with her head, because that was the way into seeing her.”
She went through quite a few cinematographers in her search for Magda Kowalczyk. The job was a tall ask: Arnold needed someone experienced but not too established, since they’d have to be available on fairly late notice and commit over a long period.
“I was a bit worried about getting somebody who might be worrying about their shots. I was wanting someone who would really let the cow be important and not nothing else,” said Arnold. “I did think, ‘Oh, we’ll get a person who loves cows and we’ll train them to use the camera.’ But in the end, Magda loves cows and she can use the camera, so that worked out great. …She really [got] it. She was able to put the cows as the focus. She wasn’t trying to show off fancy shots or anything.”
While the shots may not be technically fancy, what Arnold and Kowalczyk accomplished is astounding. By sitting with Luma throughout her daily routines of grazing, milking, and cultivation, hearing her distressed moos as she is separated from her calves one time and then another, it is impossible not to feel empathy for the animal. It is a striking reminder of the camera’s power as a tool for such.
“I was trying to see the invisible part of her because we all know farm animals are used for a billion things…that’s all to do with their physical self. Their meat, and their leather, their bones,” Arnold said. “But there’s this other side of them. Isn’t there? There’s this invisible side, which is their soul and their feelings, and their thoughts, and I like to think their will. Their desire for things and their desire to do things. That’s what I was trying to see. The thing you can’t see…her sentience, her aliveness.”
Outside the more egregious distress of losing her calves, the film forces the viewer to contemplate the more mundane barriers to Luma’s autonomy. Something as small as being forced inside after a sunny day in the meadows or the way her large body is directed through narrow passageways inspires a surprising surge of outrage. This unusually profound experience can only be achieved by sitting with Arnold’s long, gentle approach.
“Some people are going to watch her with me, and some people won’t. Some people won’t have the patience,” she said. “There’s some shots in there that are really long, and I feel like that’s not how things are right now. People cut so much all the time. I feel like there’s no faith in the audiences’ ability to be quiet and just take things in.”
If audiences can surrender to Arnold’s vision in “Cow,” they will be rewarded with far more than a unique cinematic experience.
“I felt like in the end, she felt seen by us. And I think that’s very unusual. She felt seen. And I felt her eyes changed. It’s like she landed,” Arnold said. “And I feel like that’s such a profound thing because I think a lot of humans don’t feel seen. When you really see another being…be it human or animal, even a plant, I feel like that changes the universe in a small way. It changes the universe, and I wish for more of that, actually.”
“Cow” opens in theaters on Friday, April 8 from IFC Films.