Depending on your perspective — and depending on the film — Andrea Arnold’s cinema vacillates between kitsch and kitchen sink, her intended brand of (dour) social realism sliding easily into fussy melodrama. Fish Tank’s over-seriousness marks one end of her spectrum, American Honey’s campier self-awareness the other, with Wuthering Heights and Red Road — and their respective genre frameworks — falling somewhere in between. This style of maximalist miserabilism — or else arthouse poverty porn, according to detractors — doesn’t easily project onto observational documentary filmmaking, so it’s funny how tidily this understanding of Arnold’s sensibilities translates to her latest work, Cow. None of that is to say that Arnold’s typical expressiveness is quite as easily placed here, as a ground-level view of a dairy cow’s daily existence isn’t exactly primed for her typical histrionic treatment — but make no mistake, she manages. And if any of the preceding sounds like outright criticism of the director’s work and style, buyer beware; the Arnold averse aren’t likely to find much in Cow’s documentary form to change their minds, but those who have previously caught the affected moody vibe of her narrative work may also revel in this pivot.
More than any of her previous films, Cow is a work of contrasts, beginning with the film’s musical choices. Scenes of labor — for cows on a dairy farm, multiple meanings of the word are folded into one — are backed by a veritable playlist of Top 40-approved hits, establishing immediate dissonance with the drudgery of the factory-farm setting. It’s not entirely clear whether the featured tracks are diegetic or orchestrated by Arnold — if the former, they are remarkably on the nose or implanted within the setting; if the latter (as one suspects), they are augmented so as to sound natural — but in either case, her penchant for pop music persists. The songs slather the otherwise ethnographic observations with a sheen of artificiality and jollity; as if the tunes should distract from the capitalist pursuits that stalk these animals, but instead only drawing willful attention to the existential disconnect between man and beast. As is like to be the case with Arnold, not every intimation lands elegantly — a climactic movement set to Birdy’s cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” may be a manipulative tipping point for many — but this thematic disparity at least registers more often than it distracts.
Less obtusely implemented, the film’s images provide some welcome discordance. For most, there’s a certain unsexiness that accompanies the idea of a dairy farm’s milieu: a mélange of mud and metal, dirt-caked bovines navigating labyrinthine cattle chutes and squelching through rainwater-filled ruts, and calves quickly plucked from the care of their mothers. And all of that is here. As is the case in all of Arnold’s work, the misery is certainly part of the point, but here too is the beauty, the easy majesty of humble creature living, and Arnold regularly tempers the grime with striking compositions and sequences of joy. The action is shot in crisp digital, usually in close-up — the human factors frequently existing only as torsos — and the vibrant farmland greens, blues, browns, and yellows punch up much of the palette, particularly when fuzzed out and rendered as textural elements while the camera’s focus is directed elsewhere. There are, of course, the de facto shots of grazing beasts backgrounded by tri-colored twilight skies, sometimes static and sometimes lilting as if in a gentle breeze, but none of these connecting vista shots approach the impact of the film’s more organic images. An extended opening sequence generates plenty of initial power, as the film’s primary cow of interest — Luma, according to press notes — is seen bellowing after her newborn is taken away, anxiously circling her pen, shunted along a prescribed path, the camera continually glimpsing a dangling, still-attached umbilical cord. In another instance, this one joyful, a run of cows, with an awkward gait born of bursting udders, gallop toward an open meadow to graze, half of the herd already passed by before the camera locates and then follows Luma; it’s a surprisingly affecting interlude, one where the individual is located within an anonymous collective, a moment of personalization that speaks to Arnold’s grander concerns of the relationship between man and animal.
Indeed, this moment of jubilation marks something of a mid-point in the film’s text, leading nicely into Cow’s more directed commentary. As is pro forma for such observational works, little in the way of explicit critique is proffered, but plenty is implied regarding the nature of dairy farms. Beyond the casual cruelty that is fundamental to the industry — and in fairness, this seems to be far from the most heinous of such operations — there are other implications here casually lofted for consideration. Until relatively recently, little research has been done into the emotional intelligence of cows, their social and personal selves left largely unexplored given their value as industrial capital, but Cow benefits from a more progressive understanding of the animal’s interiority, its intimacy with Luma arguing for the validity of a more anthropomorphic approach. This, in turn, lends additional weight to the film’s other layers, such as its consideration of the dairy cow enterprise as an innately maternal exhibition, a view of procreating and providing as material existence; and despite all wisdom against humanizing observed animals, particularly of the farm variety, in 2021 it’s not easy to observe the scene of a bull slowly sniffing and licking a female while building up an erection without drawing parallels between… well, beast and beast.
Cow doesn’t entirely neatly come together, and certain scenes don’t stack all that well, feeling clearly affected to some emotionally-aided, thesis-driven end (at the expense of its more successful ethnographic bent), but it’s also, thankfully, no Gunda. Where that film evoked superficial arthouse texture to support (or distract from) its pat animals are people too messaging, there’s less easy didacticism here. Cow is more comfortable in its less settled space, notably troubled by present, existence-shaking realities but also respectful of the beauty that nonetheless persists in individual lives. There’s admittedly something powerful in a cow’s black, fathomless eyes that suggests multitudes and calls out to our basic human instinct to seek complex consciousness in all living beings, but after a late-film sequence in which Luma gives birth yet again, this time framed from the front as she placidly stares both into and past the camera, snot roiling off her snout as the order of birth business is executed, the necessary pathos have already been long established. There’s no denying the sum of Cow is a healthy mix of manipulative and earnest emotionalism, and it’s likely to turn off different viewers for both its contemplative languorousness and its codifying poignancy, but the practical offense is negligible in the face of its considerable beauty and tragedy. Milk’s gross anyways.
Writer: Luke Gorham
In La Civil’s final shot, Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez) sits on a bench outside her home in Mexico. At the end of a long, fruitless journey to find her kidnapped daughter, she has seemingly become numb to her environment, unbothered by the flies that land on her face and generally broken by the preceding ordeal. The home behind her has seen better days, its present state the result of some mid-film action and an (obvious) symbol of domesticity torn apart. To say that her quest for justice was fruitless is hardly a spoiler; from the outset it is apparent that this is not the sort of film that could end in closure. Or is it? Cielo appears to see something — someone? — her eyes straining before they go wide and she smiles for the first time in over two hours. The camera begins to pan, and the film cuts to black, whatever Cielo saw left to mystery forever. Is it her daughter, unexpectedly returned? Maybe, though that would be far too neat a bow and present a suspect payoff to the film’s thematic concerns. Whoever she sees might suggest continuance and a sliver of hope to which Cielo can cling. As the rest of the film’s events leave her bereft of family and friends, her search for her daughter is her only remaining purpose.
Or, given that the filmmakers are obviously inspired by the story of Miriam Rodríguez, the woman who hunted down and captured the gangsters responsible for her daughter’s kidnapping and was murdered outside her home in 2017, this ending could represent the end of the line for Cielo. In interviews, Belgian director Teodora Mihai has repeatedly cited Rodríguez telling her that she wanted to “kill or die” every morning, so maybe this too is a sort of peace. Either way, the cycle continues unabated. This final cut to black is then in keeping with the film’s general formal strategy of looking away when it comes to violence. In moments like a gunshot execution, Mihai keeps her camera tight on Arcelia Ramírez’s face as the actor reacts to unseen bloodshed. Elsewhere, the violence perpetrated against victims like Cielo’s kidnapped daughter is seen only in aftermath, bodies strewn haphazardly across a morgue or lined up in a hideout for gangsters. The goal is to keep focus on empathizing with Cielo, but raises a vital question: who gets to look away? Cielo, like her inspiration, doesn’t, having no choice but to stare straight ahead. But we the viewers and the outsider director can instead safely watch violence reflected in the eyes and heard in the gasps of the troubled woman to whom the camera so tightly clings. The line between empathy and pity is sometimes blurred by the remove from Cielo’s perspective.
If there’s anything keeping La Civil on the right side of that line, it’s Ramírez’s performance, which conveys bottled rage and frustration without ever boiling over into melodrama. Rarely does she cry, and minor emotional tics, like the end-film smile, are suffused with complicated, sometimes conflicting emotion. If the camera stays on her face for most of the film, it has good reason to. Her best scenes are also the film’s best, those which move past physical violence and put Cielo up against the bad odds of institutional inefficiency and indifference. In police stations, prisons, and even just around the neighborhood, Cielo encounters those who cannot help her or simply won’t, and brushes up against the slow toil of bureaucracy, bristling when her first encounter with the police consists of questions that suggest gaslighting more than anything helpful. While these scenes construct a presentational realism that suffocates without formal trickery — perhaps clarifying what attracted the Dardennes to producing — Mihai’s claim that she wants this film to effect positive social change rings somewhat hollow, presenting little in the way of solutions or even much of a political point. But if the most La Civil asks for is simple empathy, it’s mostly successful.
Writer: Chris Mello
Playground, Laura Wandel’s first feature, is indeed set on an actual playground, but perhaps its French title, Un Monde (a world) more accurately conveys how the Belgian director approaches this brutal coming-of-age story. She opens with a close-up of extreme, tender emotion. It is Nora’s (Maya Vanderbeque) first day at elementary school, and as she clasps onto her loving older brother Abel (Günter Duret), her worst fears seem to be confirmed: she will have to make it alone, at least until lunchtime. At child height, where the film will stay for its entire 72 minutes, the hand of her father (Karim Leklou) guides her, until he too is told he may go no further.
The recognizable misery of settling into the structure and rituals of school life is taken to a new level of abjection in Playground. The cinematography and grey, almost shiny color palette emphasize the plastic tiles and hard, cold stone that lines so many schools. From the taste of chlorine to the dampness of an autumn playground, the film skillfully evokes the heightened senses of a child. It does this through a rigid formality: almost every shot follows Nora in close up, in extreme shallow focus, as she navigates the school.
The school-yard social system is clear, but not overripe. As the kids file from lesson to lesson, through corridors, or shiver at the swimming pool, the Foucauldian prison is clearly felt. That Playground is a kind of kindergarten Son of Saul becomes clearer as Wandel reveals Nora’s hero, the biblically named Abel, is not the soccer champion he presents himself as, but the victim of vicious bullying. She immediately makes friends — but even they whisper about her brother when he wets himself. Evidently, class is also an issue — she misses out on a birthday invite, and her father doesn’t work because he is looking after his kids — but Wandel doesn’t dwell on it. Class simply isn’t a part of Nora’s understanding of her world.
Wandel’s aesthetic strategy has its limitations, however. As Abel’s suffering reaches morbid heights, there are times that the viewer could do with seeing the faces and subtle reactions of players on this playground world. An angelic teaching assistant who offers protection, like a Bresson woman, is employed to give Nora a spiritual glimpse of the peace within playground walls. At other times, a reliance on obvious visuals like diving underwater to show a state of limbo and turmoil does little more than link scenes of pain together. When Nora spots Abel being stuffed into a bin by relentless bullies, she covers her eyes with a sheet, pretending not to see, in a self-conscious reference to the film’s entire style.
What sticks in Playground, ultimately, are the small details that capture childhood activity and behavior. How gravel in an eye feels like the worst thing in the world — until it isn’t, as one sees when the film cuts from tears on the playground to laughter in the lunchroom. How placing leaves around a bird, dead in a sandpit, or aimlessly digging holes in the ground, get the children closer to understanding death, life, and the earth itself. These moments offer a balance to the cruelty of Wandel’s world. By the time Nora begins to don a denim jacket in the film’s second half, she begins to resemble one of Pialat’s working-class rebels. Even if Playground is no L’Enfance nue, Wandel’s film burrows right into the mind of its characters, leaving you gasping for air.
Writer: Ben Flanagan
The Hill Where Lionesses Roar
One of two films debuting in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight by actresses thrust into the spotlight thanks to Céline Sciamma’s masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Franco-Kosovar director Luàna Bajrami’s The Hill Where Lionesses Roar articulates a vision of youthful emancipation. Qe (Flaka Latifi), Jeta (Uratë Shabani), and Li (Era Balaj) are teenage girls, or lionesses: they yearn and hunt for freedom, for that wild feeling of adrenaline and to be invulnerable against anything and everything. Their lives center around the film’s titular hill, a rustic Kosovan landscape that tethers them to a home they have outgrown and long to escape from, just as it shields them from an unsympathetic world beyond their own.
The film’s striking imagery, such as the modern chiaroscuro of gems against the quiet of a nocturnal theft, or of the three girls staring into the camera, bloody and bare-chested, presents a discordant challenge to the solar pastorals of village life. These bolder, brasher strokes envision a world where these young women could, for example, drive around a stolen Jaguar without question. Bajrami’s rebellious spirit is however less an antithesis of tradition — against family or culture — and more an affirmation of her heroines’ burgeoning independence; that they must upend the rhythm of their lives in order to live freely and according to their desires. Her frequent use of static shots portrays them as if the eponymous lions on a preserve, darting in and out of the frame, rarely interacting with the rest of a society they will inevitably fall in line with. There’s a bit of stylistic showmanship in these sequences, preoccupied at times with photographic composition at the expense of naturalistic continuity, a flourish that reveals Bajrami’s fledgling directorial experience. A cathartic energy similarly courses through the film, emblematic of (as is typical of many debuts) its unpolished personal expression.
Nevertheless, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar often proves authentic and heartfelt, especially in the characterization of its three leads. Bajrami likewise exudes a tender appreciation for her setting, carefully mapping out the lionesses’ emotionally complex relationship with home. The director herself appears in the film, as one of two side characters who make their way into these young lives. As recent festival jury darlings like Exile, Hive, and Looking for Venera have placed Kosovo on the critical radar, Bajrami’s addition to this national oeuvre furthers its nuanced exploration of cultural and generational identity, mediating between a land and its zealous youth. (In the film’s press notes, Bajrami contrasts her impression of the country with her sister’s; she is fascinated by it as much as the latter considers it a prison.) Though largely plotless, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar does not devolve into whispers; its freewheeling sorority, reminiscent of such recent Cannes selections as Djam and Divines, fiercely juxtaposes desire with defiance: a girlhood of rebellion in which love and crime aren’t worlds apart. Its languid pacing may fail to enamor us with Bajrami’s thinly-sketched first act, but the gradual accumulation of her solar-powered compositions into the echoing roar of the three lionesses leaves a firm impression by the time the credits roll.
Writer: Sarah Williams
The forest greens and crumbling modernist estates of the Eastern French town of Forbach provide the backdrop for Softie (Petite Nature), a queer coming-of-age story from Party Girl director and Camera d’Or winner Samuel Theis. A father’s hands shake as his 10-year-old son, Johnny (Aliocha Reinert), expertly rolls him a cigarette. He, his siblings, and their mother are moving out hastily, and under duress. Relocating to a rough estate, where they share a one-bedroom apartment, Johnny doesn’t see his life as amounting to more than working as a salesman, or in McDonald’s.
Then Theis drops a cool teacher into the mix. Mr. Adamski (Antoine Reinartz, from BPM and Non-Fiction) rides a motorbike, smokes, and jokes with his kids. He sees potential in the educationally neglected Johnny, and when he takes his class out onto the playground for a science lesson, and teaches them to sense their pulse by holding his fingers to Johnny’s neck, it is clear that Johnny doesn’t just appreciate an inspirational teacher, but is experiencing the first stirrings of same-sex attraction.
Softie can move quite slowly. As Theis settles his audience into Johnny’s new environment, the film seems to meander, delivering familiar social miserablist dramatic beats. He has to take care of his sister, a toddler, as their white, cornrows-donning mother is clearly struggling with working-class life and bad relationships. The lovers that she welcomes into her bed become the subjects of Johnny’s watchful gaze, as he quietly awakens to the gentle and empathetic nature that separates him from other men. At a local carnival, he spies his mother having sex in a car, which inspires him to begin stalking Mr. Adamski back to his plush house, where he is on a date.
This intermittently ramps up the stakes, but Softie never quite leans into any particular emotional extreme. Often, it returns to a twee romanticism that mirrors The Florida Project, but without that film’s bold visual style or sense of humor. Jacques Girault’s cinematography is proper no-frills filmmaking — competently geting the point across in each scene, and then moving on, and it pays off to great effect in certain scenes, such as one featuring a school shooter drill wherein Johnny sees his teacher as a grand protector.
It all builds to a genuinely awkward scene of attempted liberation, which ambiguously lays out several moral choices for Johnny, Mr. Adamski, and their respective families. The film’s inclination to reward Johnny for his self-discovery leads to a certain patronizing positivity toward the film’s final stages, and its reliance on the likes of William Basinski’s Disintegration Tapes to do much of the emotional heavy lifting drags the unassuming viewer out of the film’s dramatic momentum. But despite its light manipulations, Softie nonetheless manages to achieve a level of psychological realism across its 95-minute runtime, anchored by a wonderful central performance from the young Aliocha Reinert.
Writer: Ben Flanagan