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When his cows begin contracting a deadly flesh-eating virus, a young farmer finds himself knee-deep in doo-doo in the French agricultural thriller Bloody Milk (Petit paysan), which marks the feature debut of writer-director Hubert Charuel.
Part naturalistic look at the hardships in running a modern-day farm, part low-key suspenser that’s never quite as gripping as it could be, this intriguing genre-bender benefits from the charisma of its star Swann Arlaud (A Woman’s Life), who plays a lonesome cowhand trying to eke out a living in the rough Gallic countryside. Cleverly scripted in places but lacking a real directorial vision, this Critics’ Week special screening should see scattered pickups after premiering on the Croisette.
An eerie opening dream sequence reveals the cows literally coming home to 30-something Pierre (Arlaud), a quiet type who runs a small milk farm on his own. It’s a tough life that’s suddenly made tougher when one of his bovines comes down with FHD — an invented malady based on Mad Cow Disease, and whose symptoms include high fever, general lethargy and severe bleeding along the back and spine.
Knowing that his entire herd will be destroyed should the government learn of the infection, Pierre opts to slaughter the sick cow himself and winds up burying the evidence in his fields. But he soon falls under the suspicions of his sister (Sara Giraudeau), a local veterinarian who figures out what’s up and allows her brother to get away with murder, at least for the time being. Meanwhile, health inspectors and a prying mom (Isabelle Candelier) only make matters worse, pushing Pierre to resort to ever more drastic measures in order to protect both his flock and his livelihood.
Written by Charuel and Claude le Pape, the script sets up Pierre’s dilemma early on, revealing him to be a conscientious farmer who loves his metier and is proud to do it all by himself, including delivering a baby calf in one true-to-life scene. Arlaud, who previously appeared in Critics’ Week films Neither Heaven Nor Earth and The Anarchists, clearly doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, and although Pierre is a man of few words, his plight comes across through the pure grittiness of the performance.
But as much as Bloody Milk has potential to be a nail-biter (or is that cud-chewer?), it never exactly takes off in terms of the action and suspense, which is captured by Charuel in what feels like rather routine ways. There are a few intense moments, as well as stabs at humor that border on Coen Bros. territory, but generally speaking the film is a tad too pedestrian in terms of its execution. (The 2005 horror movie Isolation, which treaded in the same kind of territory, was less realistic but much more harrowing a viewing experience, while 2015 Cannes Un Certain Regard winner Rams tackled a similar plot and milieu with more skill.)
On the other hand, the English-language title is perhaps a bit misleading compared to the French Petit paysan (literally “little farmer” but more like an insult meaning “redneck” or “hillbilly”), which reveals a social aspect of the story that could have been even further explored. In essence, Pierre is part of a dying breed trying to make ends meet in a place where agribusinesses rule and smaller farmers have a hard time surviving. Thus, when his cows start falling deathly ill, Pierre’s decision to kill them off is both a means to save his farm and, in a greater sense, an act of true resistance.
Production companies: Domino Films, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Swann Arlaud, Sara Giraudeau, Bouli Lanners, Isabelle Candelier, Valentin Lespinasse
Director: Hubert Charuel
Screenwriters: Claude le Pape, Hubert Charuel
Producers: Stephanie Bermann, Alexis Dulguerian
Director of photography: Sebastien Goepfert
Production designer: Clemence Petiniaud
Costume designer: Ariane Daurat
Editors: Julie Lena, Lillian Corbeille, Gregoire Pontecaille
Composer: Quentin Lepoutre
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Sales: Pyramide International
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