On a British dairy farm today, Luma the cow is continuously fertilized so that she can produce milk. This documented window into her life sees her regularly hooked up to a milking machine, accompanied by her two calves.
A loosely formed cash cow documentary isn’t the obvious sequel to Andrea Arnold’s sultry odyssey through the Midwest. American honey. Or Aquarium, his seminal 2009 teen drama set in an east London estate. Yet both shed light on the survival of two young women despite the premeditated and difficult conditions into which they were born, and it is here, in another story of a woman surviving a stressful situation, that Cow finds its place.
There’s not a lot of beauty in this film. He fleetingly appears in a starry night sky that Luma views from the ground, or while she has time to graze on some fresh grass. But where long-time Arnold collaborator Robbie Ryan bathed his fiction films in the sun, the cyclical abuse of his bovine subject is here captured by new cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk at a surprisingly close distance, with a rationed natural light to reflect Luma’s existence.
The director creates a brutal yet hypnotic narrative rhythm through routine exploration of Luma’s body and lingering shots of his face.
The film begins viscerally, with the painful and slippery birth of her last calf. During the brief time they spend together, Luma cleans the mucus from his stumbling offspring, and then they are separated for good. A guttural sequence ensues, in which Luma wistfully calls out what one can assume isn’t the first time, given the resigned sense of duty that consumes his face and body while on the job.
It’s an ambitious Arnold film that doesn’t use voice-overs or superimposed text to structure Luma’s story. Instead, the director creates a brutal yet hypnotic narrative rhythm through the routine exploitation of Luma’s body and lingering shots of her face, her orb-shaped black eyes staring unblinkingly into the lens. As Luma is the sole subject of the film, it could be argued that it is not a solid commentary on the treatment of cows in the dairy and meat industries, no matter how frank the filmmaker’s agenda. . However, Arnold avoids directly vilifying the farm workers and their friendly but formal approach to their work. Instead, she asks an evocative and empathetic morality question that stops right before she preaches. On Luma, you can project as much or as little as you want.
An immersive and passionate documentary from one of Britain’s most formidable filmmakers, which may be singular in its perspective but is as powerful to watch as it is painful.