Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Arnold’s camera observes the gait of the animals so that right from the start we understand how they are constrained by their distorted bodies." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

There are almost two million dairy cows in the UK. Some of them live on organic or small-scale farms and receive individual attention day to day, but the vast majority live out their lives within a heavily industrialised agricultural system. Andrea Arnold’s first foray into documentary filmmaking follows one of them. She does have a name, but we learn it only at the very end. For most of the running time, the closest she gets is the number stamped onto her left buttock: 1129.

We first meet 1129 when she’s giving birth. She’s calm about it; it’s not her first time. Her daughter, who remains nameless but is distinguished by her fine bone structure and very white face, struggles to feed at first, reaching for teats where they would be on a wild cow and not where they are actually positioned as a result of selective breeding and a year or more of milking, on udders which will eventually swell to a degree that makes it difficult for 1129 to walk. They only get a day together; then the calf is taken away to a separate enclosure where she feeds from a plastic container with a rubber teat. 1129 exhibits the clearest sign of depression in animals, a disinterest in food. She calls out for her calf, a distinctive call. Much later, when heavily pregnant again, she will see a group of calves and call out to them in the same way, as if hoping that he daughter is among them. Living as she does, she cannot have any conception that her child has grown and changed.

We see the calf again, following her as she is moved around, sharing a small enclosure with four others, then moving into a larger one where she leaps around delightedly, finally free to move. Farm workers look on and smile. There is no intentional cruelty amongst them, beyond their following of familiar procedures. Arnold does not show us monsters, only a monstrous system.

There are bright moments, even for 1129. She cannot have any understanding of why her body is as misshapen as it is, so each day’s milking comes as a relief, and she seems to enjoy some of the music played whilst it happens, gently moving her head around in rhythm. Her encounter with a bull is not the horrific experience which some animal rights activists focus on (though no doubt these things vary). He spends some time licking and nuzzling her before trying anything else, and she seems comfortable with him; afterwards she rests her head on his flank and they listen to music together. There is a hint of the simple pleasure such animals might find in the wild. Later, when she is released into a field to spend the main part of her pregnancy eating grass, we see something similar. As a viewer, it is a relief to see all that space and light after Arnold carefully keeping us penned up inside industrial-sized barns for the first part of the film. The cows rush towards the open space with obvious enthusiasm.

There is no narration here. Song lyrics and occasional comments from farmhands are all the words we hear. 1129 seems to attach no significance to human utterances, though sometimes their tone might calm her. Arnold simply observes, picking out moments in the edit which reveal things about her subject’s experiences and personality. 1129 is a natural loner, disinclined to share space with the other cows when she doesn’t have to, though some of them seem concerned about her when she’s off her food. In crowded conditions she tries to mount another cow, probably asserting dominance. but she is not uncaring. Shortly after she has given birth to another calf, small and almost completely black like the bull, she notices another calf in trouble, stuck with its legs on either side of a small fence, its mother paying no attention, and she goes to help it.

Parting with the black calf is hard for her. “Is she normally this bad?” asks a farmhand, and the one who responds hesitates and seems to choose his words carefully, as if hesitant to criticise what it is really perfectly reasonable behaviour. He puts it down to “old age.” The average dairy cow is killed at the age of five or six. In the wild, cows live to around 20. Arnold makes no comment on this, so the point will be lost on many viewers, but one might still hesitate upon hearing a new mother described as if she were geriatric.

There is a question which the author John Wyndham poses in his children’s book Chocky: why does a cow stop? That is, why doesn’t an individual like 1129 open the gate of the field, which is simple enough and which she will have seen farmers do over and over again, and just leave? Why does she let humans who are much smaller than her take her children? Why does she always follow where she’s led? This film makes it plain that it’s not because she’s stupid. We might, indeed, ask the same question of ourselves. As anyone who has tried to break with social conventions in a group situation will know, it isn’t easy. 1129 was perhaps chosen because she seems to have a little more curiosity and awareness than the rest of the herd. From time to time she stands up on her hind legs and tries to get a better view of what’s happening around her. But this is all she knows. If there’s a point at which cows start to put all the pieces together and pluck up the courage to break the rules, it would likely come after their five to six years are up.

Arnold uses simple devices to keep us alert to these questions. At Christmas, one of the farmhands wears a Santa hat and Fairytale Of New York is played during milking, with its themes of longing for what might have been. The camera sometimes drifts up to the sky, catching sight of a plane, birds, a union jack hot air balloon – reminding us that the world is bigger.

The sound design in this film is superb. We hear the crunch of every blade of grass, catch the buzzing of insects, the soft chatter of birds; or, indoors, the clank of machinery, the sullen movement of hooves on the filthy ground. Arnold’s camera observes the gait of the animals so that right from the start we understand how they are constrained by their distorted bodies, which might act as a metaphor for the distortion of their minds. Cow has suffered as a result of critics comparing it to Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, but it is really a very different film, with a distinctly female sensibility. Though they have some experiences in common, the lives of the two animals are very different. This is Park Farm in England, and this is Uma’s story.

Reviewed on: 06 Apr 2022
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Cow packshot
A close-up portrait of the daily lives of two cows.

Director: Andrea Arnold

Year: 2021

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK

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