It’s only been a few days, but the 2021 Cannes Film Festival has already kicked off a mini-debate over the form and function of sex onscreen. First, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard had us all quibbling about the exact definition of “during cunnilingus” in Annette. Then Paul Verhoeven threw some fuel on the fire by condemning “Hollywood puritanism” ahead of the premiere of his lesbian-nun movie Benedetta. And now I’ve just seen a movie that proves — despite all the obituaries — the classic, classy sex scene remains alive and well in contemporary cinema. I’m talking, of course, about Cow, Andrea Arnold’s new documentary about cows.
Cow follows the daily life of two dairy cows on a British farm: an adult named Luma and her baby calf, whose birth gets covered in graphic detail in the movie’s opening scene. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, which generally takes a matter-of-fact gaze toward the necessary anatomical elements of animal life, up to and including multiple gynecological exams. If you’re not down to watch an umbilical cord gently swaying out the back of a waddling cow’s vagina, are you even a real cinephile?
And yet, there’s one scene where Arnold decides to sow her wild oats. Midway through the film, Luma starts wildly mounting her fellow cows. This can only mean one thing: She’s in heat. A bull is brought in to perform the traditional duties of his sex. But unlike so many Hollywood movies, which seem to race from kiss to orgasm in ten seconds or less, Arnold lets the moment linger. First, the two cows face off in the pen. Then, as tension builds, they start to slowly circle each other. It’s clear that they are literally horny. Soulful R&B is playing over the barn’s sound system, which I would take as a joke by the farmers except for the fact that the barn always seems to be playing soulful R&B. Finally, after an eternity, the bull starts to lick Luma — yes, just like Adam Driver. If this year’s Cannes lineup is about anything, it turns out to be the importance of proper foreplay.
Lest the spell be broken by the sight of actual bovine intercourse, after a brief flash of bull erection, Arnold discreetly cuts away, denying the audience the opportunity to discover which way the cows lean in Roger Ebert’s joke about the two styles of lovemaking — Steak ’n Shake or In-N-Out. Instead, she uses the old standby: a cut to fireworks, a movie trick so old Hitchcock used it on the Riviera, too.
It’s a funny sequence, but in the context of the movie, it’s also a little sad, too. As much as we might speak about “animalistic passion,” we also know that Luma isn’t exactly following her natural desires here. A few scenes earlier, we learned that she hadn’t been in heat since the birth of her calf; only with the aid of a mystery injection was she suddenly hot to trot. What looks to us like a hot-and-heavy sex scene is merely the beginning of an industrial process to create more cows. The farmers in Cow don’t seem like bad people at all; indeed, they appear gentle and conscientious. But that’s the point. They are people, not cows. Arnold is giving us a small glimpse of what it’s like to have your entire existence — your birth, your sex life, and ultimately, your death — contingent on the needs of another species. You don’t have to be a vegan to find that pretty mooving.
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