On Wednesday night, Guest Writer Isa RingswaldEgan attended the Columbia Maison Française’s virtual screening of “A Cow’s Life/Bovines,” a night that ended up being an incredibly intimate experience with the animal.

As flies flit around a herd of cows basking in the sun, their tails swing back and forth to dissuade insects from approaching. The world is all the greens and blues, an ideal summer day in the pasture. A displeased moo rings out across the grass.

This month, the Columbia Maison Française has organized a film festival entitled Being in the World: People and the Planet in French and Francophone Cinema. A combination of in-person and virtual screenings, Being in the World examines humanity’s relationship to other species in the face of climate change. Only the second film of the festival, A Cow’s Life is not your typical Friday night family movie. Also called Bovines, this film from French director Emmanuel Gras is a documentary about cows, put simply. Free of any dialogue or music, the hour is spent with a flock of cows somewhere in rural France going about their lives. I experienced a wide range of emotions while watching the film, from discomfort to disgust to happiness to awe. There were more than a few instances when I let out a bit of a confused giggle, not knowing whether to intellectualize the experience and try to find the most artistic interpretation of the scene, or to just sit with my gut reaction that it was a little weird. 

The opening sequence reminded me of Charlotte’s Web, with precisely focused, beautiful shots of spiderwebs covered in morning dew. At first, we follow a cow wandering through a quintessentially pastoral scene, mooing loudly, her peers paying no mind to her cries. It is unclear why she cries, but mournful moos reverberate across the hills for a few minutes until the title card is shown. We never catch back up with her or find out her motivation. 

Most of the next 20 minutes–and most of the movie–are spent watching cows eat grass. You might say, “Why would I want to watch cows eat grass?” but let me tell you, that grass looked scrumptious. And, as cows spend the majority of their lives eating, digesting, and eating again, it makes sense that so much time is spent on this essential activity. The way the cows chomp the grass like it is the best thing they’ve ever tasted in their life (and it probably is), may have converted me to grass eating. The satisfying crunches are also good endorsements for the grass’s deliciousness. Is it 20 minutes of grass-eating? Yes. But I honestly could watch more.

The detail-focused cinematography definitely helped on that front as well. Every shot shows just how beautiful every texture, sound, color, and time of day is. The texture of the cows’ fur, the light bouncing off a puddle as it first starts to rain, the deep blues of the night, the chirps of early morning birds through the fog. I’d like to think it shows how much beauty cows find in their everyday. 

We also watch a cow give birth. No cuts. No music. No discretion. We see (and hear) a calf squeeze, covered in amniotic fluid and blood, out of their mother. The newborn spends a few minutes learning how to stand and being cleaned affectionately by its mother. This was a bit out of the ordinary for me. I saw a goat give birth once around the age of 8, and it was not an experience I wanted to relive. However, the frankness of the shot did not portray the birth as graphic or shocking, but more as a fact of bovine living: neither bad nor good. This was definitely a moment when I was torn between artistry and gut reaction. After letting it marinate in my head for a day, I do think it really is a beautiful way to see life, if graphic.

Similarly, there are matter-of-fact shots of cows peeing and defecating. Again, no cuts or music. At this point, I decided cows don’t have much of a taboo around these things and wouldn’t mind people seeing them pooping. These are simply normal bodily processes done in front of the rest of the herd. Still, this requires a bit of a perspective shift. 

After accepting the reality that cows poop, we are thrown into the lack of autonomy that the herd has. Cows are grouped and steered into vehicles whose destinations are unclear. We also see one mother and her calf encounter a plastic bag rolling across the otherwise verdant and idyllic pasture. These instances show how humanity infringes onto cows’ otherwise peaceful existence. Between these more poignant moments, the cows move across the landscape, continue eating grass, clean each other, find apple trees, and experience the changing of the seasons. This emphasizes the herd’s naturally peaceful existence. Later, the herd is split in two, and we see the remaining cows mourn the loss of their family. The final shot is a long, up-close, (dare I say, intimate?) view of a cow chewing its cud. Panning from cheek, to ear, to jaw, and finally to mouth and nose before the credits roll.

Does the herd remember the loss? Am I taking this too seriously? In the end, who’s to say? I enjoyed watching cows go about their lives for an hour. I would recommend it to anyone prepared to see bovine bodily functions up close, or for those looking for a bucolic, relatively plotless movie. But definitely be prepared for some graphic images of cow parts after giving birth. On the flip side, the film could be interpreted as a commentary on climate change, an argument for veganism, or as support for absurdist schools of thought. Bovines’ lack of narration and music leaves the story ambiguous, letting the audience sit with the film and decide what it means for them.

Bovine via pxhere