Leviathan (2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)


Leviathan is a strange, pure-cinema documentary, commissioned in part through the Sensory Ethnography program at Harvard, about commercial fishermen. But that tells you nothing; from the sound of it, you might be expecting an episode of Dirty Jobs or something. Instead this film runs without explanation, narrative context or any clear establishment of where it’s taking us, tossing us headfirst into the oblique, terrifying realities of all this exhausting business. In between endless close-ups of water, dead fish and the dregs of ocean work, it shows us the people responsible for the day-to-day grind of the industry but identifies none of them and does not allow us to know them well. It’s a bit like a blue-collar For All Mankind, sans clarity, for it simply attempts to put across the strangeness and intimidating largeness (and — this is me projecting whereas the movie does not — misery) of this world and career. Isolated labor and avant garde verité combine to make, as you can already tell, the perfect date movie.

As noted, Leviathan is not a documentary with any editorial statement — it means very simply to immerse us. Most of the audience with the patience to sit it out, however, will walk away abuzz with questions and opinions, the implicit environmentalism and class commentary dominating them. The film doesn’t make meat consumption look at all dandy, for one thing, with the rolling about on the floor of dead fish, their slaughter and dismemberment, forming an excruciatingly detailed focal point. Secondly, from what we glean of the workers’ lives — we can barely hear what they’re saying, their dialogue an impassive din of shouted commands and tired responses nearly lost in all the noise around them, and we bear witnss to one of them nodding off on what looks like a miserably inadequate break onboard the ship — it’s a lot of nasty, mind-numbing grunt work and the political conclusions many of us will make from that are pretty clear even if the directors don’t wish it so. Lastly and most importantly to the function of this as a movie, the surreal but nightmarish real-world imagery presented here instantly enters the pantheon of unforgettable — yet perversely gorgeous — film visuals.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as elegant as it likely sounds — and it’s such a difficult film to watch and enjoy that its audience is perhaps permanently limited to almost miniscule quantities. The largest problem is that its twin aims, to capture the cruel, barbaric and enormous nature of the sea and to shed light on the life of the common skilled laborer, feel incompatible. That’s not so in theory but it is in practice, maybe simply because of the way both are executed. When pure abstraction with mortifying but majestic associations gives way to the odd anonymity of a group of faceless men given some sort of semi-catharsis onscreen, you end up wanting the film to completely wander off in either direction. The relationship between these things is ultimately more logical than intuitive and hence not terribly cinematic, which is a disappointment in such an audaciously cinematic film.

That having been said, note if you will that this makes resourceful use of two things most movies shamefully take for granted: color — the colors are eye-popping, terrible, astounding — and sound. Not sure if it ever dawned on me just how bare narrative-movie sound design is until all of the constant hums and cries and metallic grinding seemed so present in all their stereophonic layering that I had to pause the DVD a few times to make sure there wasn’t a big truck or something outside.

When Leviathan is successful at establishing a sort of drone as it pounds through the sea, especially in the beginning and end (the almost heart-stopping extended shot of birds seen from beneath the water might be one of the most glorious moments in recent cinema), it’s hypnotic. All the way through, it’s a genuine work of difficult but fascinating art. That this beautiful film was shot digitally — and could not possibly look better and could not possibly have been made on film — may shut a few people up for a few minutes, me among them.

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