Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: Cow

Marti Stelling offers her thoughts on Andrea Arnold's powerful documentary on the lives of two cows

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Image Credit: BBC Films

This review contains spoilers

I’m not entirely sure what I expected when I heard the premise for a documentary film about a dairy cow, but it certainly wasn’t what greeted me when I stepped into City Screen York.

I think I envisioned one of those documentaries that shows you the horrors of the cruel living conditions for livestock, complete with a dramatic narration that makes you put down your little tub of Ben & Jerry’s and swear off animal products for life (or at least a few hours!)

Instead, Cow was thoughtful and sensitive, focusing on everything that both farmers and cows do for us. There is a very clear story arc, and yet there is no narration and very little dialogue.

The film really is a whirlwind of emotions that I am finding difficult to put to paper. It had me in tears of joy one moment, then looking around the almost-empty room the next to see if anyone else saw the horrifying scene that just flashed on the screen.

There were moments of prolonged eye contact from the cows, making you wonder what they’re thinking. There were also tender exchanges between them, particularly following the birth of a calf. Watching the mother give birth and then clean and look after her baby is something that could warm even the coldest of hearts. The maternal care between cows and their offspring is at the heart of this film.

The film is full of difficult to watch scenarios, such as the ear tag clipping scene in which the cow displays clear discomfort, with close ups of the cow’s beady, sad looking eye. There are also moments in which you see the cows struggling in cramped conditions.

However, this is not the sole focus of the film. There are real sensitive moments between the animals and the farmers, my favourite being one in which a young calf is seen sucking on the farmer’s finger. The mother cow is called Luma by the farmers, which I found made the film even more emotive. There were also moments that made me laugh, such as the loud ‘clunk’ when a cow had clearly walked into the camera.

The film relies on amplified sounds and graphic close ups to immerse you in the environment. This is a pre-warning if you’re squeamish, don’t like bodily fluids, or loud chewing noises. The cow who had just given birth suffered from a twisted uterus, which is extremely graphic.

There was also a scene in which the cows were receiving their injections. One of the cows had a procedure that was clearly painful for the animal, which was hard to watch and had me squirming in my seat.

The amplified sound draws particular attention to the breathing of the cows. Again, this is a very humanist quality that helped me empathise with them. There was one moment in which the cows were transported by wagon and you could hear them breathing heavily, as if they were scared.

There is also a scene in which a cow is having their hooves clipped and to do so they are placed in a machine which they were slowly lowered down from rather amusingly - Wallace and Gromit style.

Something that I learned from this film, that I had no idea before watching, is that cows get the zoomies, just like dogs do. Excited by their new environment and being allowed outside, the cows “have a little dance”, which is one of the cutest things I have ever watched.

Following this, there is a weird cow sex scene that I would rather obliterate from my memory. However, there are tender moments between the bull and the cow as they appear to watch fireworks in the distance together. We then see Luma having an ultrasound and learn that she is pregnant again.

It is refreshing to see the cows free in the field and there is a beautiful moment in which one of them is seen watching the stars in the sky. Even something so simple as seeing the cows squirm as flies land on them is so eye-opening in terms of the ways cows experience the world.

We see the farmers working throughout the seasons, in the snow, wearing Christmas hats, and while The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ plays. Despite the repetitive nature of the tasks both the cows and farmers have to do every day, it’s clear that the farmer’s have a genuine care for the animals and passion for their job.

The film takes a sad turn as we see the slow deterioration of Luma. ‘Skinny Love’ plays sadly, and we watch her produce milk and go for a walk for the last time.

Cow had me in absolute pieces and as I sit here writing this review, I am thinking about watching it again. Impartial, sensitive, and beautiful. This film was nothing like I’ve seen before.

Editor’s Note: this film was screened at City Screen York

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