Andrea Arnold is a visionary filmmaker whose work is characterised by the presence of female teens amidst an impoverished backdrop, à la Fish Tank (2009), Wuthering Heights (2011) and American Honey (2016). So when it came to light that the next passion project for Arnold, having finished a stint working in television, was a documentary that explores the daily (and dairy) life of two cows in rural England, my interest was certainly piqued.
This close-up portrait sounds odd, that much is obvious, but there’s actually more to it than what initially meets the eyes and some may be surprised to learn that Cow certainly harbours more than a passing semblance to Arnold’s previous work. Throughout her poetic career, she has always been a champion for the underdog and the underprivileged and this is no different. We don’t often associate the bovine to be amongst the most beautiful in the animal kingdom, but with Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and now this, it’s nice to see cattle have their positive moment in the spotlight. In the midst of the mundanity, the tedious runtime and the numbingly excessive amount of mooing, there is a haunting elegance and empathy to this whole thing.
As an unnervingly gentle exploration into man’s dominion over nature, Cow doesn’t follow the same path as other films like Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (1949), as Arnold cleverly eschews the tiresomely loaded shock factor and constant barrage of guilt-tripping pain in favour of something a tad more surreal and sensitive, and the end-result is an affecting doc that is less your typical Attenborough affair and something that is unexpectedly and utterly moving (or should that be “udderly moo-ving”).