Watching this breathtaking experimental documentary, which follows a commercial fishing vessel in the North Atlantic, is like being submerged in a seafaring nightmare. LEVIATHAN is a truly immersive cinematic experience.
It opens with a cacophony of sound – a composition of lashing waves, hailing rain and the churning of heavy machinery – as abstract shapes randomly manoeuvre across the screen. After this frenzy of expressionistic patterns and abrasive noise, we see a tilted view of a flock of gulls and a haunting horizon. Without realising it, the audience is already all at sea. The point of view of a fisherman is established with the camera attached to his hood.
Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, both prominent anthropologists at the University of Harvard, followed the hellish rituals of a crew of industrial fishermen off the coast of New England (the setting of Melville’s Moby-Dick) by using an array of small cameras that capture an assortment of peculiar perspectives. These disparate points of view, which include rigging being plunged underwater and fish heads sliding across the deck, create an all-encompassing and hallucinatory depiction of the vessel and its tempestuous surroundings. The effect at times gives an eerie impression that the ship is alive: that it’s a giant organism armed with mechanical tentacles that swallows and digests schools of fish, a sea monster of biblical proportions to which the film’s title alludes.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have achieved a feat of filmmaking by making an almost entirely dialogue-free picture that is simultaneously an observational documentary and a piece of surrealist art filled with allegory. Through their innovative approach they forcefully illustrate the brutal hardships of the crew, and create an air of mysticism purely through hypnotic sound and imagery. LEVIATHAN is a fantastically progressive work of documentary cinema.