Film Review: Battle Of The Queens


   As Lars Von Trier highlights, in the best sequence of his sneering film Antichrist, nearly anything can look beautiful if shot in slow-motion, crisp black and white. Tony Kaye, or Edward Norton depending on who you want to attribute the credit, managed to make anti-semitic violence have a touch of the grandiose in American History X and Martin Sorcese channeled his inner Leni Riefenstahl in giving sport the appearance of the operatic by composing the celebrated imagery of Raging Bull. In his film Battle Of The Queens, Nicolas Steiner continues this tradition with his clinical shooting of a documentary on a subject that would, on paper, seem entirely incompatible with the cinematic documentary medium - cow fighting.
   The 70 minute feature follows a cow fighting event in Switzerland which attracts large crowds each and every year. Steiner's camera begins the film in full on Albert Maysles style, echoing the 1960 film Primary as the camera follows its subjects, the attendees of the event, going about their business whilst rarely interacting with the film crew. Unlike a Werner Herzog or an Erroll Morris, Steiner does not seem intent on deep philosophizing or exploring the human condition to its very limits - instead he is happy to just let the film languidly roll by as the audience soak up the atmosphere of a festival of arcane proportions. Like the undercard of a big fight boxing match, the early part of the film, as beautifully shot as it is, seems to be the warm-up, the exhibition, before the main event signifies the climax of the film - and what a climax it is!
   Rather than more barbarous animal sports, the objective of cow fighting is that the two beasts will not try and injure or maim each other but rather rut until one backs away. Battle Of The Queens is a fantastically illustrative title as the word "battle" indicates the enduring marvel of the event and "Queens" represents the reverie which surrounds the animals; the breeders treat their cows with  the utmost respect and with a hushed awe. Two of the very strongest cows at the festival engage in battle for the thrilling end-fight of the movie and, at this point, the film really leaps up a gear in terms of excitement, in part due to the lush cinematography. As the two beasts jostle, the stark, black and white photography comes to life and elevates the contest into something almost transcendental - yet, paradoxically, as well as being rather beautiful, the documentary does not try to make out the rutting is anything other than the ugly, grunting struggle it is. Slow motion shots catch globules of mucus being expelled from the straining beasts bodies; their struggle to maintain ground throws torrents of mud into the air and impact causes the animal's bodies to seismically reverberate. In a contest where it seems like an irresistible force has met an immovable object, the breeder's hushed veneration for the festival's subject is transferred to the camera and the pounding soundtrack raises the excitement level until, suddenly and deflatingly, the contest is over.
   Unlike Rocky or Cool Runnings this is not a film about sporting events teaching the protagonists important moral lessons. The stars of this film, after all, are cows. Real cows who have not been anthropomorphised in any way - they are not the animals of Disney, nor are their actions interpreted with clunking voice-overs to indicate the innate goodness of nature as in March Of The Penguins. Instead, and satisfyingly, the only message that can be taken from this film is that it is a celebration of archaic traditions and how, even in modern society, they can have real depth and meaning to people. Yet, even without a message, the enjoyment of the film comes from one of the best action sequences to arrive in cinema in sometime. Instead of CGI or fast paced editing every other second to give the impression of frenetic energy, Battle Of The Queens offers up a highly stylised, yet gritty and dirty, uncompromising fight sequence that is likely to stay with the viewer for some time.
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