Culture

Bloody Milk: A man, his cows and way of life

BEIRUT: The opening sequence of Hubert Charuel’s “Bloody Milk” looks like an exercise in misdirection. A man wakes up to his alarm in the morning and stumbles to the kitchen to make coffee. To get there he has to shoulder his way through the herd of dairy cows standing around his house.Farmers have been known to live among their livestock, but that doesn’t happen so much in France anymore. So there’s a promise of surreal amusement in the sight of a farmer sipping a cappuccino in his kitchen while placid bovines blink at him.

Ultimately “Bloody Milk” delivers a story grounded in a more mundane reality.

The farmer, 30-something Pierre Chavanges (Swann Arlaud), has taken over his parents’ small dairy farm, which he runs single-handed. Mama et Papa still live on site and Madame Chavanges’ persistent interest in his personal life is predictably annoying for Pierre.

Completing the family unit is Pierre’s sister Pascale (Sara Giraudeau), a veterinarian who services the local farming community. Here too proximity foments irritability – most evident in Pierre’s paranoia about the health of his cows.

It turns out an outbreak of bovine hemorrhagic fever in Belgium has given Pierre good reason for concern. Pierre – who perhaps devotes too much time to the online ranting of a Belgian farmer who lost his livelihood to the disease – is terrified his cows too will be afflicted. Europe’s farming sector is tightly regulated, of course, and, in lieu of effective treatment, a single confirmed report of fever symptoms will cost a farmer his entire herd.

It’s not hard to guess which way the plot is headed.

Tales of farmers struggling to keep the family farm afloat in a hostile economic environment have become a cinematic trope and the smallholder’s suffering is often depicted as unremitting melodrama if not outright tragedy.

Charuel – who co-wrote the script with Claude le Pape – takes some pains to prevent “Bloody Milk” from being that type of film. While Arlaud and Giraudeau are the load-bearing walls of the drama, the director makes good use of story’s ancillary characters to flesh out Pierre’s life.

Mama et Papa Chavanges’ proximity proves useful in wringing some unexpected, low-key humor from the story – while suggesting how the protagonist comes by his obsessive character.

“Bloody Milk,” Charuel’s English-language title, apparently is meant to speak to Anglo-Saxons’ weakness for things visceral (blood’n’guts). The Gallic title, “Petit Paysans” (Small Peasants), more accurately reflects the complexion of a film concerned with the changing face of Europe’s agricultural sector. (In this regard Pierre’s seldom-seen farmer pals serve a more utilitarian function – to demonstrate the technological transformation of European farming.)

That said, there’s little in the circumstances, characters or story of “Bloody Milk” that’s eccentric to France. Though it speaks French, “Bloody Milk” tells a commonplace story that’s become increasingly universal – or rather “global,” insofar as disease (like bovine hemorrhagic fever) routinely penetrates open borders, wrecking havoc on rural lives, with the same reliability as capital flows and technological solutions like robotics and the “internet of things.”

Charuel’s film sketches the backstory of the social and cultural backlash to the globalization project – the one that’s expressed itself in the florescence of political movements that seek to harness the parochial fears of Europeans (“Le Pen”) and Americans (“Trump”).

“Bloody Milk” isn’t documentary and Charuel’s goal isn’t anthropology. At root, the film is a character study, profiling the struggles of a stubborn and compassionate man and the extremes to which he’ll go to protect a way of life.

It’s intriguing the way Pierre’s cows are shown to occupy his waking hours. It’s reminiscent of some cinematic treatments of religious cults.

“Bloody Milk” will be projected at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Friday at 8:30 p.m. The Beirut iteration of Cannes’ Semaine Internationale de la Critique runs through July 10. Some films may be subtitled in English.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 29, 2017, on page 16.

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