This likeable, eccentric documentary from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (who’s usually found making indie dramas like the Michael Fassbender-starring Fish Tank or her US-set American Honey) puts you deep in the company of an English dairy cow (do cows have nationalities?) and the rest of her herd for about 90 minutes – no voiceover, no explanation, no sentimentality, just lots of moos and manure.
You could call it fly-on-a-cow’s-arse filmmaking. It has one big purpose – to stay as close as possible to one cow, Luma, (with diversions to follow her offspring) – and it milks it til the cows come...well, let’s just say that Cow reflects the full cycle of life, from birth to inevitable death.
It starts with our bovine starlet giving birth, her new calf flopping out onto the straw before mum starts licking her newborn clean. We see constant rounds of milking and feeding, pushing and pulling, shoving and shouting. The few humans we spy are always in the background or only half in shot, although what we do know about these farmers is that they love playing pumping pop music in the milk shed (which is rumoured to help with lactation). The camera stays very close to the cows mostly, sometimes letting their big eyes dominate the frame, begging us to wonder what’s going on in their brains. There’s a scene where one cow gets a pedicure – actually, I think they were doing something more technical with her hooves – and another (close your eyes, cattle lovers) where a calf has a burning hot blunt instrument pressed into its skull in two spots, presumably to stop the growth of horns.
A voiceover or some text would have told us what is going on, and where and when – but what’s the point: does a cow even know if it’s in China or Chile, let alone if it’s Christmas? (We spy a farmer wearing a Santa hat and hear Shane MacGowan’s voice on the farmyard speakers, which is a giveaway for us humans.) There’s nothing cloying or corny about the way Arnold depicts these beasts. What she gives us is a straightforward slice of a cow’s relentless life of muck, milk, breeding and feeding.
In UK cinemas Jan 14. Streaming on MUBI Feb 11.