Leviathan is a fantastic audio-visual experiment, presented as by the Sensory Ethnography Lab. The emphasis is on the sensory, so to get the other out of the way, it is filmed entirely on and around a commercial fishing vessel and yes, it’s a hard life for these fishermen, with much of their work machinelike in its mindless repetition, and mostly at night (happily the fish-gutting is filmed with some discretion; the removal of ray wings less so).
The film’s real power is purely aesthetic, however, and the men are treated more or less as one more component of this world comprised of water, wind, sea life and machinery. Director’s Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel took a load of cheap digital cameras and suspended them off the boat, hoisted them in the air amidst the following gulls, stuck them on the fishermen’s helmets, and juddered them about handheld in a fashion perfectly mirrored by the perpetual motion of the undersea eddies; when the camera is still, movement is provided by the incessant roiling of the ocean; and even in one cherishable, long-held static shot of a fisherman trying in vain to stave off sleep before a banal television in the perfectly prosaic break room, the low grade image makes the patches of color in a mayonnaise jar or a packet of crackers convulse with pixels.
This is certainly a film that looks for beauty in the less-than-perfect image, and overwhelmingly it succeeds. The spell is rather weakened when one can actually tell what is going on, but when one cannot, or when nothing is actually happening but the ocean’s perpetual reconfiguring of itself, or the silvery dead fish eyes exert their surreal power, it is mesmerizing. Crazy flashes of color and light gradually dance across the immense black screen for the opening, deep in the chain hold, looking like nothing so much as an abstract, hand-painted film; the ocean flings its near-microscopic flotsam in gorgeous unfocused aureoles of color; the camera is hurled into and out of the waves to reveal a dizzying tessellation of gulls; or the cast-off debris, entrails and blood stream past the submerged camera like a no-budget, real-world stargate.
The superlative sound design plays an great part in this, a bombardment of ocean, wind and machine noises. The implication of diegetic thrash metal for one shot is another spellbreaking diversion into ethnography, but subsequently echoed in the clanking of the machinery above decks. Elsewhere, winches sound like Persian chanting and one wonders at the extent of manipulation (also in a couple of places where the waves are disconcertingly visible but inaudible). Mostly, however, one takes the soundtrack as apparently realistic camera-captured audio, with all the limitations that entails, and the tinny, underwater tinge of noise-reduction marries perfectly with the submerged image. Otherwise, the realism of the soundtrack allows us to visualize the chains we cannot make out on screen, and provides a thrilling sense of immediacy, as the cameras rise and fall beneath the waves.
There are many things formally fascinating about this film – the long opening sequence, for example, renders editing meaningless as one may try in vain to spot the cuts between the abstract images or the constantly reconfigured camera view on deck – but it is at its most effective when the grotty digital image captures colors and dancing swathes of light above and below the ocean in ways that make them both recognizable and surreally decontextualised, and ends with the wonderfully simple but hypnotic device of upending a suspended camera, so that gulls fly upside down beneath white flashes of seafoam. The credits commemorate various ships lost in these waters off New Bedford and the sense of the hard work being done in a world of violent motion and unemotional slaughter is ever present, but it plays second fiddle to the leviathan’s boiling cauldron of color, light and sound.
Film’s Festival Page: Leviathan
World Cinema Section
Country: UK | USA | France
Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
Producers: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
Directors of Photography: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
Editors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
Music: Ernst Karel
Running Time (minutes): 87