Would it be fair to describe Andrea Arnold’s new film as a mooed piece? The director of Fish Tank and American Honey has spent the past four years in the field, and the barn, shooting and compiling this poetic documentary about the life of an ordinary cow: the milking, the grazing, the calving, and other aspects of the dairy grind. The cow in question is called Luma, and she lives up to her name’s light-giving overtones, with big, bright eyes and merrily dappled black-and-white flanks. (Arnold’s keen eye for new on-screen talent evidently doesn’t stop at humans.)
Luma lives on what looks to be a small and pleasant farm near Tonbridge in Kent – not far from where Arnold herself grew up – and the humans that look after her do so with obvious warmth and diligence. The film categorically isn’t an anti-livestock-farming tract; nor does it ever cutely suggest Luma is experiencing recognisable human emotions as she goes about her bovine business. In fact, her irreducible bovinity is what makes Cow so compelling – and gently unnerving, too.
When the camera looks at Luma she will sometimes steadily return its gaze, and you find yourself watching intently for a flicker of creature-to-creature recognition – an indisputable sign that her experience of this familiar, children’s storybook environment is in some way similar to ours. But Arnold is far too smart a director to give her audience any easy cues. (Or, as many documentaries would, manufacture some with clever editing.)
This might sound ridiculous, but a number of times during Cow I was reminded of the sequence in Arrival where Amy Adams first boards the mysterious spacecraft and meets its inhabitants, which are so bewilderingly unlike humans that the cognitive rift between them and us seems unbridgeable. For all the placidity of its cud-chewing subject, Cow has a thrillingly alien charge.
Throughout, we’re invited to grapple with the fundamental strangeness of these creatures’ existence: if it weren’t for us, they wouldn’t be here in the first place, and their lives are essentially ones of service. There is a funny, moving sequence in which Luma’s herd go out to pasture in the spring, and as they roam excitedly around this new, wide, green expanse, far from the mud and metal of the farmyard, it’s as if we’re watching them falteringly rediscover what being an animal actually means.