After a grueling experience with HBO’s Big Little Lies, Andrea Arnold returns with her first film in five years. Positioned somewhere in the world of documentary, Cow follows the life, death, and daily grind of a pleasant heifer named Luna.
The film premiered at Cannes, where Arnold took a moment to talk sustainability, bovine beauty, and her formative experiences with nature. Read the conversation below, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Film Stage: The film is about as far away from Hollywood as it gets. Was Cow, on some level, a reaction to recent experiences?
Andrea Arnold: [Laughs] It kind of is, isn’t it? That wasn’t the plan but it’s obviously very far away.
No, this has been a labor of love for a long time. I think I thought of the idea like seven years ago, so it’s been sort of slow, gentle, in the background. It’s interesting for me because I don’t usually do this sort of thing; I normally make a project and that becomes all-consuming. It’s very interesting to bring a quiet thing to a big, noisy festival.
How did the idea come to you in the first place?
It’s hard to explain what it’s about and I don’t really want to explain too much. It was interesting thinking about where it came from because it made me think about my childhood and my relationship with nature, because where I grew up there were estates and there were very rural kind of places in-between. There was kind of this mix of man and nature. My parents were really young. My mum was 16 when she had me, and had four children by the time she was 22, and my dad was not really around—so we were very unsupervised. I was out all day, from very early on, and I think what that brought was a real connection with my environment.
I remember going to see a film with my best friend Deborah when we were ten—Stardust, I think—and she said “Oh, my friend’s got puppies in this house” so we said, “let’s go and see these puppies.” So we went and there was a little runt, and I felt sorry for him, so they just gave him to me and I took him home. It was that kind of thing. I didn’t have to ask anyone. Then he didn’t get any kind of lead or collar, or any kind of conventional care, so he just did his own thing; he just roamed. He lived in a house, he would roam and come back, and I would roam and come back.
As I wasn’t restrained, I had a very natural relationship with nature. Our view of nature is a very romantic one—it’s very sort of pastoral. We engage with the romance of it as opposed to the reality of it. I’ve always felt this real sadness about our disconnect from nature, and to connect with it means hard truths because it’s got some brutality. I feel like we should connect and be part of it because we are part of it. So I thought: instead of the romance, what about the reality? Not like some of the real intensive reality, but just a consciousness, to show a consciousness. To connect with one animal.
Why were you particular about it being a cow?
I guess there is something about their size, their hugeness, and the fact that we’ve taken the horns out and tamed them. There’s something I find fascinating about that. They’re the biggest and yet they’re very gentle. Also the dairy cow, the female aspect. I mean, they work so hard and they live this life of maternal existence. They’re impregnated, they give milk, and that can happen 15 times. I was just kind of intrigued.
What was it about Luna?
Well, she’s beautiful; she’s got a beautiful head. I think all of us, when we see cows, you don’t see the individual. I knew once we started filming the individual you would see her, but I tried to find a cow that had a very distinct head. And she does, because she’s all white, and she has this little black spot. She also had attitude, and I wanted a cow with attitude.
How was it to deal with the farmers? Did they react with trepidation?
The farmers were fantastic. That’s their reality. They work really hard and do their best for the animals in those circumstances. They’ve been dairy farmers for a really long time. They knew exactly what we were doing. It was all very straight. I wouldn’t want to do it in any other way. I’m not trying to… you know. We went to see them before I came here and said, “There’s going to be a lot written, and people will say all kinds of things. I just want to warn you about that.” I wanted to know their concerns.
One factor that stands out is the lack of human presence; our focus is so much on the cow. Was that always the idea?
It wasn’t minimizing, but basically just being with the cow. I realized early on that her eyes were everything, so I wanted to keep her head in the frame as much as possible. The reason I picked Magda [Kowalczyk, the cinematographer], is because she went to film some cows in Poland, and she did a beautiful job of filming these cows’ heads. I realized from that point to stay with them in their experience.
Have you seen Gunda? How do you feel about the coincidence of these two films, focused on a single animal, coming out so close together?
I haven’t, actually. Perhaps I should have before I came here, but I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve heard about it. I don’t know about that film, but I’ve been doing mine for a very long time. So I think it’s just in the zeitgeist.
It’s clear that the way the food industry operates is not sustainable. Was that part of your motivation for making Cow?
I want it to be received however people want to receive it. The amount of meat that we eat, the sustainability is in question. There are huge problems in the world connected with how much meat we eat. People find it hard to connect with something that isn’t really in their lives. So I think the only way to change those things is for the real big decision-makers to change. I don’t think people will stop eating meat because of the climate. Apparently last year in America was the biggest meat-eating year of all time.
Are you vegetarian or vegan?
I’m not going to talk about that because I don’t want it to become about that.
There were a lot of tears at the screening yesterday. How did it feel for you to be there with Luna, knowing what was going to come?
We got very attached to her. The day she died was a difficult day. But there was something beautiful about her death, also. Death is part of it. I got more realistic about things. What I said about getting rid of the romance; it’s really not romantic. The reality is what it is. Some of those things are quite hard things to know, but that’s part of it. We avoid all the uncomfortable things in life. We don’t want to know, but life is uncomfortable sometimes. Life is brutal sometimes. That’s our reality.
In an ideal world, what impact would you want the film to have?
I’m going to let everyone have their own relationship with it. Somebody told me that they heard an influencer from Russia walking down the street yesterday and he was saying, “Hey, everyone! I’ve got a coffee and there’s no milk in it because I’ve just seen Cow.”
Cow premiered at Cannes Film Festival.