Seeing life through the eyes of a dairy cow

An English cow named Luma is at the center of Andrea Arnold’s Cow, an IFC Films release. (Photos courtesy of Kate Kirkwood)

By Richard Ades

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t suffer vegans gladly, join the club. After being harangued by a one at a party—and by Joaquin Phoenix at the 2020 Academy Awards—I decided to avoid them at all costs.

But my feelings have softened a bit after seeing Cow, Andrea Arnold’s documentary about the life of a British bovine. I’m still not ready to give up cheese or other milk-based products, but it’s convinced me that dairy farming is not as benign as I’d believed.

Made over a period of four years on what appears to be a good-sized English farm, the film introduces us to Luma, a black-and-white cow with soulful eyes. Luma leads a monotonous existence: Eat, sleep and get milked, all of which occur in a huge, dank barn shared with dozens of other cows. And, whenever necessary, she’s impregnated so that she can give birth and continue to produce milk.

Does Luma realize what a boring, limiting existence she leads? She often appears to, as when she pauses before joining the other cows as they trudge dutifully toward their twice-daily milking. Or are we simply seeing our own thoughts reflected in her luminous eyes? Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk’s intimate and sensitive photography makes it so easy to identify with her plight that it’s hard to tell.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to misinterpret Luma’s feelings toward calves, particularly her own. Dairy farming requires cows to be separated from their offspring so that most of their milk can be processed and sold. But Luma doesn’t understand market forces; all she knows is that what’s happening is an attack on her maternal instincts. When her calf is taken away shortly after its birth, she responds by bellowing loudly and repeatedly.

As brilliantly photographed as Arnold’s documentary is, it may be hard for some to watch due not only to its enveloping sadness but to its slow, cow-like pace. One of the few times the somber routine of eating, sleeping and milking is interrupted occurs when good weather allows the cows to be released into the surrounding fields. There they kick up their heels in excitement before settling down to the rare pleasure of grazing on grass and sleeping under the stars.  

Spoiler alert: It must be noted that Luma’s routine also is interrupted in the final moments of the film, when her life is suddenly ended. Why, it’s not clear, though it’s obvious that her udders have become swollen and possibly infected. Is she being put down because she’s ill and in pain, or because she’s outlived her usefulness? The film doesn’t reveal the reason, leaving us to reach our own conclusions.  

Some activists will see Cow as evidence that legislation is needed to protect the welfare of farm animals. Vegans, of course, will see it as proof that they were right all along.

As for average viewers—if they can get past the film’s deliberate pace and final ambiguity—they’ll find Cow a consciousness-raising experience and a chance to see the world through the eyes of an animal that is familiar, and yet a stranger.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Cow opens April 8 in select theaters and on demand.