CANNES, France – Andrea Arnold waved her hands in front of her face, trying to keep her cool. “I’m a little pathetic today, sorry,” the British director said in tears.
Arnold hadn’t expected to cry during our interview, just as I didn’t expect to be so moved by his new movie, “Cow,” which made its Cannes Film Festival debut this week. At first glance, “Cow” hardly looks like a tearful man: it simply tells about the daily life of Luma, a cow on a dairy farm. She mows, she is treated, she mates and she gives birth.
But maybe these black and white patterns on a cow’s skin form a sort of Rorschach spot, because as I watched Luma lick her newborn calf or endure the indignity of a milking machine, I started to think about all kinds of important concepts: love, nature, dehumanization and death. Arnold lets his camera linger for a moment and as you look into Luma’s huge eyes you may begin to wonder if this is the cow you recognize or something in you.
Previously known for directing “American Honey” and the second season of “Big Little Lies,” 60-year-old Arnold praised the change of pace offered by “Cow,” and the filming (shot on a farm just outside of London) spanned years. Arnold told me that she had wanted to make an animal documentary for a long time, but was unprepared for the cinematic and emotional connection she had ended up forging with her star.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Did you always know you wanted a cow as a subject?
I thought of all animals, of course, and thought of a chicken because chickens usually live around 90 days and have amazing personalities. But for some reason I kept coming back to the cow. Dairy cows work so hard and they have such busy lives, I thought it would be interesting to watch.
What experience did you have with cows before?
Around the age of 18, I met my first herd of cows. I was with a boyfriend who was walking in the country, and we walked over to a field of cows and they all came to sit around me. I remember them very well because I was just amazed at how huge and sweet they were. In fact, they were all licking me too.
Is that so? Were you reaching out?
The natural thing I did was sit down so as not to look threatening, and I guess they were like, “Who are you? What are you? ”They have 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’ve decided it’s going to be a cow, what’s the first step? How do you launch a documentary subject like that?
I wasn’t sure if we would need a cow that we could spot in the crowd. Luma had a very distinct white head, with that sort of black eyeliner around his eyes. She was also described as having a certain attitude and I loved the sound of that. Everyone I’ve spoken to who takes care of cows says they have very different personalities.
You can feel that personality, although I can’t help but wonder if it’s part of the empathy and projection that comes when you watch a movie. When you were in the field observing Luma, could you feel that personality too?
Absolutely. I was telling someone the other day that I find it very touching when she … [Arnold pauses, tearing up.] I almost can’t tell. I find it touching now, telling you. A few times I just burst into tears about it.
What did she do that you found so touching?
I always said early on that if the cows are camera conscious, let them be honest. We cannot pretend not to be there and our presence will have an impact on his behavior. Sometimes she would get a little angry with us and butt the camera a bit, but I really got the impression over time that she felt seen. I don’t know if I’m right, but it’s very deep, because the point was to see her.
Some of the looks she gave us when I was there, I thought, “She really looks at me and I really look at her and we see each other.” Obviously, she doesn’t know what that thing is filming her, but she could definitely feel that we are focusing on her. I think she felt the look. When we were doing the editing, I kept telling myself, “I see you Lu, I see you.”
It must have been interesting to come back to this between two projects.
And I did “Big Little Lies” in the middle of it.
A very different manufacture.
Very different. It was a project of a place very true to me, so it was always like a touchstone to come back to it.
Would the farm let you know when something important happened with Luma?
We were in contact all the time because that’s their life: having calves and making milk, that’s what they do, and it’s incredibly difficult. They start really early and they work so hard on the farm and they do it every day. I would be absolutely exhausted, and I was full of admiration for them at the end.
And it made me think about our own lives too.
I have so much of this reaction from people, which is really interesting. I was kinda hoping for that, actually. I get pulled over on the street and people tell me some really interesting views on how they found it and what it brought them.
What are they telling you?
All sorts of things. Some people think it’s really feminist, some think it’s about being rejected, others think it’s systems. I really like that actually, hearing people’s point of view on things.
As the director of this film, what surprised you about the last film you made?
I hadn’t seen him on the big screen, and it was like seeing him again. I guess what I found surprising was I thought, “My God, this is difficult.” And I’m used to it! I know the story and I am very realistic about their life and how it is and… [She tears up again.] He’s so weird! Talking about it makes me really happy.
I never wanted to explain this movie, I just wanted to show it and allow people to have their own experience. I knew I was daring, but I’m not deliberately daring, I’m just trying to do something pure. I really wanted to know if you were following her enough, would you log in and see her? I have the impression that in the world, we do not see each other. We don’t see other living things.
Not that way.
Not that way. If we could, maybe things would be different.