Early in the chewy documentary Cow, the subject — as promised, a dairy cow of scale named Luma — stares hard into the camera. That breaking of the fourth wall has a long cinematic history. The knowing gaze of Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows remains the benchmark, but Luma is only a little less magnetic. More urgent communication follows: a barrage of moos from her pen at Park Farm in Tonbridge, south-east England. What exactly she is saying — making an argument for veganism, perhaps, or a critique of the previous work of director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) — we are left to mull in this vérité portrait.
We can often take a guess, though. If imagining the inner lives of animals feels like kids’ stuff, Cow is tied up with age and loss of innocence. Childhood tales of happy farms can’t help but flicker behind the industrial reality. Motherhood features early in the film too. A calf struggles; Luma nurtures; Arnold captures all. If the cow has as little choice in starring as she does in anything else, a good director (which Arnold is) still has to build trust.
Park Farm will have also needed reassurance. But Cow is not an exposé of anything we don’t already know, for all we might not like to dwell on it. The farm is humane. From what we see of the staff — shot from the animal’s perspective, so mostly hands and boots — their attitude to the livestock falls somewhere between fond and collegiate.
Arnold sprinkles her film with scenes of pop music booming over the cowshed speakers, as if teasing us that Luma might be a Billie Eilish fan. But this is also a workplace of blunt truths. For all the playfulness, they aren’t shied away from. The arc of the life of cattle is inevitable; “colleagues” only goes so far. Whether or not that is what Luma is thinking at the beginning of this stark, quietly provocative film, you may be at the end.
In UK cinemas from January 14
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