3-time Jury Prize winner Andrea Arnold comes back to Cannes with her fifth feature film and first documentary, Cow. Although some may think that this is a surprising turn in the career of the British master, those who followed her closely would not be so surprised as Arnold’s filmmaking style has always been lifelike, so we were bound to see her tackle a documentary at some point. And finally the time has come for yet another majestic offering in an already rich filmography.
For her comeback to the big screen, five years after her Cannes sensation American Honey, Arnold takes a bold look at the life of a cow in between two pregnancies. Cow starts with a graphic birthing sequence, and with no delay we become aware that Arnold is not interested in the role humans play in the life of our main cow. The humanistic touch is limited to the bare minimum in a documentary with no commentary and very little consequent dialogue.
The film takes us into an array of different stages that constitutes a farm routine. When the frail, small, dependent calf departs from the dairy mother we understand that the watch is not getting any easier. Indeed, Cow is a tough film to watch. It is even tougher to write about it. Although it still possesses the power of holding our full attentiveness due to its plea to show constant intimacy and abundant love for its subject.
Arnold is always devoted to translating the real world to the screen most simply and familiarly as possible. In fiction, her work not only uncovers people, but greenery and bugs in all their naturalism also translate within her lively frames into something that breathes beauty. In Cow, Magda Kowalczyk takes the wheel as the director of photography. Her work, so sublime, summons quiet, serenity, and profound meditation that liberates the somberly lit shots that blend terrifically with the setting in the display. Her style merges with Arnold’s and forms harmony with no single false mark.
With no audible commentary, it is indisputable that the visual flair is even more delicate. The Arnold / Kowalczyk power couple understand that and show it blazingly throughout the entirety of the film. But some sequences push Cow over the edge of brilliance: when cows are in their natural habitat, free and blending with nature itself. And when sexual closeness grows with anticipation, meticulous framing, and careful editing alongside Kali Uchis and Jorja Smith’s Tyrant playing in the background. All these details make for a signature Andrea Arnold movie.
As a whole, Cow is a divine work of reflection that deviates from any intrusive distraction. It invites those willing to feel, to see the obvious in a story told through the eyes of an unusual but absolute protagonist. Andrea Arnold’s raw touch gets us closer to creatures that are of great service to humankind. But with intensive observation come serious dilemmas and a moral exercise we should all be prepared to bear.