A bookending pair of calving scenes, an hour apart and starkly reversed in perspective, tell the whole story in “Cow,” Andrea Arnold’s tough, full-immersion documentary on the life cycle of a bovine servant. In the first, we watch in challenging close-up as a calf, glazed in gelatinous afterbirth, emerges feet first from the womb of her mother, a veteran dairy cow named Luma who has been through this ordeal many times before. The camera is locked on Luma’s rear, eerily detached from her moos of discomfort, as if she were little more than a vessel for new life; we see her only when, all too briefly, she gets to lick the newborn clean. In the second, we watch Luma do it all over again, this time fixed on her heavy head as farmhands busy themselves behind her. Perhaps it’s an anthropomorphic reach to say she looks tired. Perhaps not. Either way, she doesn’t seem hugely invested in the process.
Coming after four fiction features of ever-boldening sensual particularity and liberated female perspective, Arnold’s first documentary initially seems a drastic formal departure from her previous work. Yet there’s more continuity here than meets the (soulful, heavy-lashed) eye: When taken as a study of confined feminine identity and ruthlessly exploited sexuality, minus the possibilities of escape granted the loosed human heroines of “Fish Tank” and “American Honey,” it’s not hard to see why the British filmmaker has nurtured “Cow” as a passion project for years.
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A year or two too many, perhaps: In terms of sheer timing, it’s unlucky for Arnold that “Cow” now arrives on the heels of “Gunda,” Russian doc maker Viktor Kossakovsky’s more softly meditative but equally penetrating ode to thankless farmyard motherhood, prompting inevitable comparisons despite the two films’ stark aesthetic and tonal differences. With its more graphically bleak, triggering outlook — toward a finale no less jolting for its inevitability — “Cow” is emphatically the less commercial proposition of the two, though Arnold’s formidable reputation, plus the imprimatur of the Cannes official selection, guarantees it distributor attention. (It played in the festival’s newly created, non-competitive Premières sidebar, again raising the question of just why Cannes selectors are so opposed to placing nonfiction filmmaking in Competition.)
Like “Gunda,” “Cow” eschews narration for observation. The only direct human voices we hear in the film, offering occasional coaxing and encouraging commands, belong to nameless workers on an industrial British dairy farm, and they are largely swamped by the clanking of metal grates, the screech of machinery and the low, plaintive protests of the cows. Moments of quiet or serenity are few and far between: Following the aforementioned birthing, Luma gets to bond with her newborn calf for mere minutes before mother and young are separated, each put on different, narrow courses in a functional obstacle course of pens, passages and vehicles, all variously restricting and utilizing the cows’ bodies.
We watch, over and over, as Luma is forced into a steel brace for milking, while spidery mechanical nozzles are suctioned to an udder kept heavy and heaving by those repeated pregnancies. Elsewhere, a giant vise-like construction suspends her in midair, so her hooves can be trimmed with all the delicacy of a tree surgeon. Her calf, whose progress we follow in parallel, endures her own painful bodily violations, little suspecting that the worst is yet to come.
A filmmaker infectiously attuned to movement, Arnold finds a horrible, hypnotic rhythm in these gruelingly looped procedures, though she doesn’t shoot them with any surplus beauty. Working without her regular collaborator Robbie Ryan, she calls on DP Magda Kowalczyk to shoot Luma’s routine in harshly handheld fashion, lit as drably and unsympathetically as you’d expect from this environment. Stray moments when the cows are released into green fields are positively oxygenating in their impact, though even there, Arnold steers clear of bucolic image-making. The editing is often brusque: Scenes feel irregular and sawn off, avoiding any neat life-in-a-day chronology. The effect is intentionally disorienting, creating the sense that Luma can be milked, prodded, yoked and poked at any and every time of the day.
Arnold permits herself a hint of whimsy via her typically scattered, witty selection of pop music cues, which often sound diegetically broadcast throughout the farm but are clearly of her choosing. The broadest example of this comes during a scene of forced mating, soundtracked to British R&B star Mabel’s horny midtempo jam “Mad Love” (“Come put your body on mine / Keep it up all night”) as Luma and the chosen bull efficiently get rutting.
The juxtaposition is unavoidably comic, though Arnold’s inappropriate anthropomorphism just highlights one further way in which Luma’s increasingly slow, addled, endangered body is used against the laws of nature. Otherwise powerfully confrontational and in-your-face, “Cow” does hold back on didactically telling viewers exactly what to do with these violent, upsetting sights and sounds. Still, the final, yearning needle drop of Garbage’s mournful “Milk” (“I am milk … I am waiting for you”) comes awfully close.