A lonely young dairy farmer obsessed with his work will stop at nothing to save his cows from the threat of an epidemic that could decimate them in Hubert Charuel’s gripping and personal first feature, “Bloody Milk,” a solemn take on rural life that intriguingly toys with thriller conventions. Festivals looking for an unconventional noir from a budding talent should easily buy in to a film unique enough to attract niche distribution.
In the dreamlike opening sequence, Pierre (Swann Arlaud, “The Anarchists”) wakes up surrounded by his 30 cows, who have invaded his entire, small home, occupying even the bedroom. The scene sets the tone of Hubert Charuel’s first feature: a naturalist character study of a man who has shut himself in with his animals, pumped with genre elements and verging on fantasy as it attempts to enter the protagonist’s troubled mind.
A thirtysomething bachelor whose life revolves around his farm, Pierre is the kind of man who calls every animal by its name and who awaits the birth of a calf as he would a daughter. Though his mother tirelessly encourages him to consider sweet, happy-go-lucky local baker Angélique (India Hair, “Rester vertical”), the only woman he cares about is his sister Pascale (Sara Giraudeau, seen in Christophe Gans’ “Beauty and the Beast”), not really out of brotherly love, but mostly because she’s the local veterinarian.
Lately, Pierre has been calling her on daily basis, sometimes even at night, worried about one of his cows who seems unusually tired. Despite Pascale’s repeated attempts to reassure him, Pierre suspects something serious: the inexplicable and incurable epidemic disease that recently broke out in France. If he’s right and if the health inspection hears about it, his whole herd would have to be killed.
The director, born in a dairy farming environment in northeast France, clearly knows the milieu (the film was shot on his parents’ land), capturing the farmer’s exhausting routine with documentary precision. Nervous and a bit taciturn, Arlaud seems unusually comfortable in a milking parlour or cuddling with beasts that appear more and more monstrous as the probability of an epidemic increases: One of the symptoms of the disease is a hemorrhagic fever that causes bleeding on the animals’ backs. Display a strong sense of composition, Charuel and DP Sébastien Goepfert darken the atmosphere as the protagonist’s fear of losing his herd turns into a dangerous panic.
The tension mounts during the first two-thirds of the movie, as Pierre desperately tries to hide the fact that the epidemic is spreading and that he already had to kill two of his cows (the first execution, shot like a murder scene, is one of the film’s strongest moments). And yet, the suspense proves difficult sustain in the final stretch, by which point audiences have come to understand that there can be no happy end to Pierre’s situation. Even so, the script — on which Charuel collaborated with Claude Le Pape (“Love at First Fight”) — keeps its promises, portraying a desperate dairy farmer who, while not as complex or explosive as the one Mattias Schoenaerts embodied in “Bullhead,” remains a compelling and rarely seen character in French cinema.