The Academy Award-winning director talks through her new film, Cow: an observational documentary charting the life of Luma, an everyday British dairy cow
When Andrea Arnold was a kid, she’d bring stray animals to the family home in Kent. Cats, dogs, even a lamb that chewed grass in their back garden. Arnold’s bedroom was shared with gerbils that, in lieu of a cage, slept in her clothes drawer. “It was like: knickers, socks, gerbils,” the 60-year-old British filmmaker recalls to me with a giggle. “At night, they’d get out and run all over me. It was a wild childhood.”
Arnold, an Oscar-winner whose features include Fish Tank and American Honey, is a director known for the humanity of her characters. However, Cow, her first movie since 2016, does away with people almost entirely. The 94-minute documentary follows a dairy cow, Luma, as she endures a hellish routine on an everyday farm. Luma gives birth to a calf that, like the others that follow, is escorted away to produce milk. A bull is thrust by farmhands upon Luma for mating reasons. The repetition, both physical and emotional, wears the creature down. I don’t want to give away too much about Luma’s fate, but let’s just say she didn’t join the red carpet at the Cannes premiere.
However, the joy that Arnold derives from animals and nature is evident, which is why Cow is more complex than its logline suggests. While the documentary sounds like it should be an early contender for the most depressing film of 2022, it would be wrong to dismiss it as misery porn. “If somebody uses the word ‘bleak’ for Cow, they’re looking at it in a very narrow way,” Arnold explains. “Or maybe they’re not receiving what I’ve intended.”
When I speak to Arnold, it’s in an office at King’s Cross, in early January, just before Cow is unleashed on cinema audiences around the country. That said, Cow has already developed a reputation as a weepie. At Cannes, an attendee estimated to Arnold that 70 per cent of the audience was crying. “A lot of my friends were crying at that screening,” Arnold says. “The next night, we had another screening, and it was the same. I think lots of people don’t always know why it’s affected them in that way. It’s not just about the cow, I don’t think.”
While Cow is grittier, cheaper, and more literally down-and-dirty than what Arnold is known for, it still shares DNA with her previous movies: the CCTV cameras and voyeurism of Red Road; the muddy, poetic landscapes of Wuthering Heights; the raw, in-your-face realism of Fish Tank and American Honey. Arnold’s first three shorts even had the animal-related names of Milk, Dog, and Wasp, which won her an Oscar in 2004. The key difference for Arnold is that Luma, unlike her other protagonists, still existed when the cameras were switched off. “I think about Luma all the time,” the director admits. “Even now, I can see her.”
On Arnold’s dramatic work, she usually has a solo writing credit, coming up with the characters herself. “But with Luma, she’s a real, living, sentient creature. Her soul got under my skin.” I ask if she’s referring to the unknowable aspect of her star. Often, Luma will stare into the lens, occasionally banging her head against the camera. With both eyes laser-focused on the viewer, Luma will moo at a piercing volume. To me, she’s pleading to be rescued, or at least expressing her anguish with the most primal noise possible. Of course, Luma’s intentions exist entirely inside my imagination.
“The Irish poet John O’Donohue talks about the wild beauty of the invisible,” Arnold says. “Do animals have a soul? If you think of the soul as being something that is the invisible aliveness of a person or animal, Luma definitely has a soul. I can see her thinking about things through her eyes, which I knew were really important to stay with through the film. And if you think of the soul as having a will to do something, she definitely has a will. And emotion – you can see her emotion. That wild beauty of the invisible feels very there with her.”
Cow also captures a disarming moment when all the cows are feeding except for Luma, who glares at the camera, refusing to eat, presumably in protest. “There’s no way of knowing,” Arnold remarks. “I don’t know if she was feeling unwell, or maybe just sad. But she was definitely in a different place to the rest of the cows. In all the time I went there, I never saw another cow do that.”
The footage of Luma was shot across four years, during which Arnold also directed the second season of Big Little Lies. One compliment – or complaint – with American Honey was that, over its three hours, it felt like being stuck in a van with its characters. Cow does the same. Due to the repetition of Luma’s routine, time becomes disorientating. Unlike in, say, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Luma’s progression over four years isn’t obvious, and instead of Cowhood there’s a meditation on the purpose of one’s own life.
“I’ve had plenty of people say to me afterwards they had no clue that’s how milk came about. Obviously they knew milk came from cows, but they didn’t realise that calves were taken to produce milk” – Andrea Arnold
The absence of a voiceover means that the viewer, unless they’re totally braindead, will create their own internal monologue, whether it’s “I will never consume dairy products again” or “I need to start campaigning for animal rights”. Perhaps you recognise the feminist angle of a female cow who’s locked up, pressured to give birth, and refused agency over her body. Or maybe the film offers a sober reflection of your 9-to-5 life at a dining room table converted to a home office, being metaphorically milked until you die.
Alternatively, Cow is an inverse of the cute story you may have been told as a child about moo cows, the happy, smiling ones who exist as cartoons on milk cartons, or even the herds you pass by on trains who otherwise seem free to roam endless fields. Then again, surely everyone knows how farms operate? “I don’t think everyone does,” Arnold counters. “I’ve had plenty of people say to me afterwards they had no clue that’s how milk came about. Obviously they knew milk came from cows, but they didn’t realise that calves were taken to produce milk. Farmers told me that they’ve had kids do tours who think that milk comes out if you lift their tail. I actually think it’s not necessarily clear.”
Arnold’s knowledge of farming deepened a few years ago, before Cow, when she was conducting research for another project. During our conversation, she relays a few nuggets picked up from this period. For instance, Arnold met a farmer who plays the saxophone to his cows because he claims they produce more milk as a result. She recently read an article that cows produce up to 500 litres more milk a year if you call them by a name. “Maybe the cow feels the affection and is willing to produce more,” she theorises. “Or they’re happier and produce more. I’ve read studies that say animals feel more connection if you put the radio on – that apparently makes a difference.”
In Cow, Arnold blasts pop music on a stereo in the background, ranging from Billie Eilish to The Pogues, which the cows don’t audibly disapprove of – even the problematic part of “Fairytale of New York”. “We live alongside all these things, the water, the air, these things that grow,” Arnold continues. “We’re all connected. I think that everything that is living, feels the cruelty or the kindness of the things that are living beside it. You can test it out with a plant. If you ignore it and shout at it and don’t water it, then it will die. I think that calling a cow a name is an extension of some affection.” On that last point, she clarifies, “I don’t actually know. I’m just making this up!”
A few hours before our interview, the Pope publicly admonished couples who have pets instead of children. I paraphrase the news story to Arnold, daring her to go on record against the Pope. “It’s not his business to comment on things like that, is it?” she says, bemused. “Maybe it is. It sounds very judgemental.” She laughs. “Before we farmed, we used to live with animals. I so believe we’re supposed to live with animals. People have dogs and things at home because they’re the only option we have now of a relationship with any kind of animal. People don’t want children, or can’t have children, for all kinds of reasons, and maybe the next best thing is to have a living creature around that is at least breathing in the same space as you.
“I understand it. Our options are reduced because we live in a very disconnected way from nature. I think we should all go back to living more alongside animals somehow. I don’t know how. Maybe we all need to have a cow at the end of the street.”
If the Pope were to watch Cow at his local cinema, he may be swayed by the sequence in which the herd are taken to a field at night and they silently gaze at the sky. In a few minutes of screentime, we’ve gone from a Luma moo to a lunar moon; the bovine figure serenely appreciates the poetry of the stars as if it’s The Lion King. Or so I presume. “That moment is a true moment,” Arnold beams. “I don’t know what she’s thinking, or if she’s enjoying looking at the galaxy. But it happened.”
Arnold doesn’t want to elaborate on her next project, other than it’s a movie script for the BBC that she’s been writing “for ages”. She also doesn’t wish to disclose if she’s vegetarian or vegan because she doesn’t want to “narrow anybody’s thinking” before viewing the film (though I notice that her coffee seems very black). Whereas Joaquin Phoenix, at his Oscar acceptance speech in 2020, was more direct (“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby,” the actor announced on stage), Cow takes a different route. “I tried to make a gentle thing about an animal, to see its consciousness,” Arnold explains, “and I just want people to be able to see that and make up their own minds about what that means to them.”
Before Cow lands on MUBI’s streaming platform in February, MUBI will also release it exclusively in cinemas. It’s, personally, unimaginable on a laptop – or, at least, an entirely different movie, due to the visceral, hyper-emotional journey of sitting through the 94 minutes uninterrupted with strangers in the dark. “As a filmmaker, you always want your films to be seen, and however they get seen, you don’t mind,” Arnold says. “But I really think this is a film for the cinema, because, one, it’s all about images. I made it for the cinema, and I think you get more out of it if you see it in a cinema.
“But two, I really believe in things being an experience, and sometimes not an easy one. When you stream things at home, you’re disconnected. If someone knocks on the door, you can answer it. You become the person in control. You can drop it, leave it, half-watch it, maybe fast-forward it. Whereas if you go to the cinema, you’re being given an experience by the filmmaker. You’re being given something that I think is a special thing – and allowing yourself to be in that situation is part of the joy and experience of cinema.”
Cow is in UK cinemas on January 14, and streaming on MUBI from February 11