CANNES, France — Andrea Arnold waved her hands in front of her face, trying to keep her composure. “I’m a bit pathetic today, sorry,” the British director said, tearing up.
Arnold hadn’t expected to cry during our interview, just as I hadn’t expected to be so moved by her new film, “Cow,” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival this week. On the face of it, “Cow” hardly sounds like a tear-jerker: It simply chronicles the day-to-day life of Luma, a cow on a dairy farm. She moos, she is milked, she mates and she gives birth.
But maybe those black-and-white patterns on a cow’s hide form a sort of Rorschach blot, because as I watched Luma lick her newborn calf or endure the indignity of a milking machine, I began to ponder all sorts of weighty concepts: love, nature, dehumanization and death. Arnold lets her camera linger for a while and as you’re staring into Luma’s enormous eyes, you may start to wonder if it’s the cow you’re recognizing or something within yourself.
Previously known for directing “American Honey” and the second season of “Big Little Lies,” the 60-year-old Arnold welcomed the change of pace that “Cow” afforded, and filming (shot on a farm just outside London) stretched for years. Arnold told me she had long wanted to make a documentary about an animal, but she was unprepared for the cinematic and emotional connection she ended up forging with her star.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Did you always know you wanted a cow as your subject?
I considered all the animals, of course, and I thought about a chicken because chickens usually live for about 90 days and they’ve got amazing personalities. But for some reason, I just kept coming back to the cow. Dairy cows work so hard and they have such a busy life, I thought that would be interesting to look at.
How much experience did you have with cows before?
When I was about 18, I met my first herd of cows. I was with a boyfriend walking in the countryside, and we just walked to a field of cows and they all came and sat around me. I remember it really vividly because I was just amazed at how huge and gentle they were. Actually, they were all licking me as well.
Really? Were you putting your hand out?
The natural thing I did was sit down so I didn’t seem threatening, and I guess they were like, “Who are you? What are you?” They’ve got these huge tongues and they were licking my clothes and my hands. At that point, it had a profound effect on me.
So once you decided it would be a cow, what’s the first step? How do you cast a documentary subject like that?
I wasn’t sure whether we’d need a cow that you could pick out in a crowd. Luma had a very distinct white head, with this sort of black eyeliner around her eyes. She also was described as having some attitude and I loved the sound of that. All the people I spoke to who look after cows say that they do have quite distinct personalities.
You can sense that personality, though I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s part of the empathy and projection that’s created when you watch a movie. When you were on the ground observing Luma, could you feel that personality, too?
Very much so. I was saying the other day to somebody that I find it very moving when she … [Arnold pauses, tearing up.] I can’t say it, almost. I find it moving now, telling you. A few times, I’ve just burst into tears about it.
What is it she did that you found so moving?
I always said early on that if the cows are aware of the camera, just let it be honest. We can’t pretend we’re not there and our presence is going to have an impact on the way she behaves. Sometimes, she did get sort of angry with us and head-butt the camera, but I really felt over time that she felt seen. I don’t know if I’m right, but it feels very profound, because the whole point was to see her.
Some of the looks she gave us when I was there, I thought, “She’s really looking at me and I’m really looking at her and we see each other.” Obviously, she doesn’t know what this thing is that is filming her, but she could certainly feel that we are focusing on her. I think she felt the gaze. When we were editing, I kept feeling like, “I see you Lu, I see you.”
It must have been an interesting thing to return to this in between projects.
And I did “Big Little Lies” in the middle of that.
A very different production.
Very different. This was a project from a very true place in myself, so it was always like a touchstone to go back to it.
Would the farm give you a heads up when anything significant was happening with Luma?
We were in touch all the time because that’s their lives: Having calves and making milk is what they do, and that’s incredibly hard. They start really early and they work so hard on the farm and they just do it every day. I’d be absolutely exhausted, and I was full of admiration for them at the end of it.
And it made me think about our own lives, too.
I’m having so much of that reaction from people, which is really interesting. I kind of hoped for that, actually. I’m getting stopped on the street and people are telling me very interesting takes on how they found it and what it brought up for them.
What are they telling you?
All kinds of things. Some people think it’s really feminist, some people think that it’s about being discarded, some people think it’s about systems. I’m quite enjoying that actually, hearing people’s take on things.
As the maker of this film, what surprised you about the final film you’ve made?
I hadn’t seen it on the big screen, and that was like seeing it anew. I guess what I found surprising is that I thought, “Gosh, this is tough.” And I’m used to it! I know the story and I’m very realistic about their lives and how it is and … [She tears up again.] It’s so weird! Talking about it really gets me.
I never wanted to explain this film, I just wanted to show it and allow people to have their own experience. I knew I was being bold, but I’m not deliberately being bold, I’m just trying to do something that’s pure. I genuinely wanted to know if you followed her around enough, would you connect and see her? I feel like in the world, we don’t see each other. We don’t see other living things.
Not in that way.
Not in that way. If we could, then things would be different, maybe.
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