Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 28, 2022 12:33 pm 
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Follows one cow to the end at an industrial dairy farm in England

The adventurous, challenging feature films of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank and American Honey) are well known. This time she has endeavored to make a documentary in the immersive style. Her dp follows Luna, a cow at an English industrial dairy farm up close and person in all situations, including cauterizing horns, trimming hoofs caught up in a monstrous metal device, and calving, with the calf separated from her shortly after birth. The film shows that Luna isn't happy separated from her calf. The calf isn't allowed to get milk from its mother; that's why it's taken away, so the milk can be bottled and sent to the supermarket. From an online PDF file, "The life of dairy cows": The cow has a strong maternal instinct and is normally distressed by the removal of her calf.Both the calf and mother will make loud calls trying to locate each other after they are separated." It's enough to make you shy away from the milk carton in the shop.

A Viennese study has shown it also makes a difference in the development of the calf to be separated from its mother early on. Calves allowed regular contact are more socialized and may cope better as adults. Separation may not represent "the ideal form of animal husbandry." Surprise surprise. This film shows that we impose 1984-style life upon farm animals. But mostly Arnold isn't making points. A cow's life on the farm is pretty limited under the best of conditions. She is trying to show what this world looks and sound like. Actually, the barnyard conditions appear very clean. And when the cows are outside on the grass, under the trees, the irregular black and white coats and all the colors and light have the pastoral beauty of a traditional English landscape panting of Thomas Sydney Cooper - or Rosa Bonheur.

Still, the "you are there" approach gives the viewer a pretty rough time, also in that things tend to go on longer than necessary, yet, with all the interventions from machinery and staff, the bars, the clanging noises (Arnold's addition of comically appropriate pop song recordings didn't help), a prison-like feeling sometimes emerges. This is not a fun watch. And it is not going to have a happy end.

Which. brings us to a comparison other reviews have made, to Victor Kossakovsky's 2020 Gunda, reviewed here as part of the New York Film Festival Main Slate, which follows one farm animal too, a giant sow, who is tending to her many piglets. Unlike Luna, Gunda is allowed to tend to her offspring tenderly and with care and at length: pigs don't emerge as fully formed as calves, by a fair margin (the way calves can jump up and walk around a short time after emerging from their mother's womb is a little astonishing). But the climax of Gunda is that when the piglets are a certain size, they are unceremoniously removed, all at once, and the last ten minutes of the film focus on Gunda wandering around, helplessly crying out for her children.

Gunda, which is black and white, has a satisfying visual purity and simplicity but, more importantly, tells a simple and involving story. It's a more satisfying film with more audience appeal. Cow - even the title is harsher and crueler - is a challenging film. But it's as much a pioneering piece of filmmaking, making bovine farm life accessible, without intervention, explanation, talking heads, inter-titles or voiceover. It is immersive and can be haunting. Beware - you may dream of cows after you watch it.

Cow, 93 mins., debuted at Cannes and was included in over two dozen other international film festivals. It opened for a limited US theatrical release Apr. 8, 2022. Metacritic rating: 80%.

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