The recent handful of wordless, zoological documentaries is one of the more charming surprises of the last few years. Critical acclaim for 2009’s Sweetgrass and 2010’s Le quattro volte has branched out into a bit of a mini-genre, including this year’s safari park entry from Denis Côté, Bestiaire. They have now been joined by Emmanuel Gras’s Bovines, a film perhaps even more poignant in its agrarian minimalism than its predecessors. It took its first bow at Cannes of 2011, in the festival’s ACID (Association du Cinéma Indépendant pour sa Diffusion) selection. In a way, however, it did not have its spiritual premiere until earlier this summer when Rooftop Films orchestrated its first outdoor screening at the Old American Can Factory. Even in the midst of industrial Gowanus, with the lights of Midtown gleaming on the horizon, this small French documentary blends beautifully with the open air and erases the boundaries between cinema and the natural world.
Simply put, Bovines is an hour of cows. Much of the production consisted of Gras and his camera alone among the stoic beasts, who seem to have barely even noticed their intrusion. The film begins on an unassuming hillside pasture, yanking the audience into the bovine world with the persistent mooing of a single cow. The source of this one animal’s distress is nowhere to be found. Can cows have bad moods? None of her fellow cattle seem to even notice, unmoved in their traditional empty gazing. It is a simple announcement, a declaration of cow-ness (bovinity?) that both irritates and amuses.
While all this is happening, the wind picks up a bit at the Old American Can Factory. As French vegetation blows in the wind on the screen, so do the trees of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, visible along the Brooklyn panorama that frames the roof. The expanse of sky above becomes an extension of Bovines’sbucolic scenery. As the landscapes blend, our perspective opens up, leaving the safe and focused distance of the indoor cinema audience and heading out into a more centerless relationship with the film. Frankly, one begins to feel like a cow.
The stunning technical achievements of this exceptionally small film also help with the bovine transition. The sound in particular is worthy of praise, almost impossibly crisp throughout. Cinematic chewing of cud has never been so distinct, though Gras must not have much competition on that point. Every blade of grass is heard, be it rustling in the wind or tumbling through the big, clumsy jaws of the cows. Meanwhile, the framing of these beasts in their tranquil environment could not be more carefully depicted. Gras is not particularly concerned with laying out the full landscape, especially early on. Rather, his camera tends to remain stationary for long periods of time, as his lumbering subjects move in and out of sight of their own volition. Each shot lingers and waits for the mood to settle, creating an atmosphere of quiet, almost impassive communion.
Cows, appropriately, must be the most impassive creatures on earth. They really do mull about and stare off into the distance, capable of ignoring just about any natural occurrence. Initially it seems almost eerie, the bovines gaping directly into the camera without an ounce of expression. Yet after a few minutes it seems like a perfect combination of peace and boredom. After the film’s opening there is effectively no mooing for over half an hour. Even when caught in a torrential downpour the cows merely stand there, unamused. The best example of this bland outlook is a birthing scene, by far the most memorable sequence in the film.
It isn’t immediately apparent what is going on. The camera angle is a bit off and it takes a few moments to notice the emerging baby. Moreover, the mother isn’t giving any obvious clues. It seems that cows hardly notice the act of giving birth. She abides, silent, mostly just waiting for her child to tumble out. If she is in pain we have no clear way of knowing it. After a few minutes, decalfinated, she finally lays down on the grass for a breather. Meanwhile, the infant gets up right away and starts wandering about. By this point in the film, between the cuteness of the calf and the extraordinary resilience of the mother, we not only identify with the cows but have fallen in with their strange sense of indifference.
This makes it all the more powerful when that impassivity is ripped right back out from under us. Here, Gras moves in quite the opposite direction of Sweetgrass, in which the human side of sheepherding appears dignified and beautiful. Those Montana cowboys share the film with their sheep, partners in a way of life; the French farmers of Bovines, on the other hand, appear as disruptive intruders. When French farmers show up to corral their cows, the almost violent auditory disaster is shattering. In contrast to all the preceding silence and tranquility the cattle begin a loud chorus of ceaseless moos. It might be a step too far to say that Gras is advocating against the very practice of cattle farming, but he is certainly presenting a new approach to viewing the lives and comforts of these most domesticated of livestock.
DANIEL WALBER is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. He holds a MA in cinema studies from New York University. His writing on film and opera has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, Dok.Revue and Indiewire.