At the New Zealand International Film Festival, a documentary experience like no other.
Figuratively and literally an immersive film, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s irriguous documentary Leviathan is equal parts cinematic feature and experimental video art. Despite common associations of intellectual abstraction with that latter assignation, any academic-philosophic goals of this unique work are met via a complete surrender to the pure, visceral seagoing experience. In making this choice the filmmaker-artist-researcher duo have ironically created one of the most stunning examples of abstract cinematic art brought to the big screen.
The entire film takes place in the dank confines of a ‘trawler’ fishing vessel—and in the sea and air surrounding it—working off the coast of New Bedford Massachusetts (incidentally the waters that inspired Herman Melville to pen the American classic Moby Dick). Multiple tiny cameras are deployed in lord knows what crazy experimental setup to capture a fascinatingly odd range of motion in the typical working day of the vessel. From hauling anchors and nets, to onboard processing of fish and shellfish, to the flushing of offal back into the sea from whence it came. So foreign is the form and movement presented that in one early sequence it took me a minute or two to register that it was not actually the camera moving but actually the fish and water surrounding the camera, pushed around by the motion of the sea. This extreme movement will come at a price for some, inducing nausea and dizziness, but it is these completely off-kilter sequences—such as the camera moving from under the water quickly up into the midst of a thronging flock of seagulls and then back into the water again—which feel the most alive; the most electric. Cutting back to sequences with a fixed camera position every so often helped to provide variety but also mitigate some of the disorientation. I certainly felt the tangible relief of these ‘downtimes’.
Showing no regard for such cinematic staples as narrative, dialogue, or traditional cinematography—be assured this is no Jacques Cousteau affair, though ironically there is a sequence where a fixed camera films a crew member slowly falling asleep in the common room whilst watching what appears (off camera) to be an episode of crab fishing reality show Deadliest Catch in a segment where they’re talking melodramatically about crew exhaustion—Leviathan concerns itself with the rhythm of the ocean and observing the physical activity of boat life. At first I thought that the film was playing out over the course of a day, but then it cut back to its prominent nighttime shots and also repeated an earlier sequence, only from a very different angle and camera position. Many of the sequences give the distinct impression of moving paintings. In a literal sense, the early night sequences play with light in such a way as to confer the beautifully surreal visual abstraction seen in the painted celluloid work of Len Lye and Stan Brakhage. For shots during the daytime, the effect is more of still life pictures in motion such as the sequences with seagulls, which leave a strong impression in my mind of some unremembered paintings I have seen.
Though Leviathan is primarily a visual experience—and is undoubtedly meant to be engaged as such—it successfully provokes its broader thematic concerns with virtually no exposition. Except, that is, for a well employed reversal of title placement to the end of the feature and insertion of an ‘introductory slide’. The film opens (in very appropriate font, I might add) with a biblical text from the closing verses of chapter 41 of the Old Testament book of Job. These verses speak to the impact of the ‘Leviathan’ upon it’s surroundings:
He makes the deep boil like a pot;
He makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
He leaves a shining wake behind him;
One would think the deep had white hair.
On earth there is nothing like him,
Which is made without fear.
The film closes with the title card: Leviathan. This metaphoric textual enclosure would seem an obvious filter through which to read the film’s subtext around humanity’s relationship to the rest of the natural world and the impact our passing, as represented by the boat and its activities, causes.
Leviathan is a documentary experience like no other. Visually astounding and unsettling, it deserves a big screen viewing. I suspect that a shortened cut may make its way to various international public access television channels in the future; I will be most glad to have seen it in all its glory. You should too.