For all their inventiveness – technologically and narratively – movies can also be dully familiar. And I don’t just mean Hollywood. Blockbusters, independent efforts, even international films of various languages – all employ the same basic tools in mostly similar ways. Sometimes we need a blast from the fringes of the art form – something closer to experimental cinema – to shock the system.
Leviathan does exactly that. An immersive documentary set on a commercial fishing vessel off the coast of New England, the movie eschews traditional information of any kind. Well, there is an opening quote from Job – describing the sea as “a pot of ointment” – but other than that there are no interviews, conversations, explanatory text or even identified figures. For 87 minutes, we’re plunged – often literally – into the water and work of this trawler. A representative scene is the one in which the camera rests on the deck floor while fish parts slosh back and forth for minutes on end.
Directors Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor work at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, and their project indeed appeals to the senses first and foremost. Leviathan opens in darkness, so that we’re forced to focus on the sounds: the rushing of the ocean; the cranking of gears; the clanking of chains; the splashing of something into the water … somewhere.
In this way, the movie thrusts us into a new way of encountering the world: through purely visceral experience. We’re not told what the gears do – in fact, aside from one rare wide shot later in the film, it’s hard to determine their function – but we do know how they sound, how they move and how the spray from the sea makes them glisten. This is its own sort of information.
I found myself unreasonably invested in watching a fish head sliding back and forth in front of a drainage slot.
If you get into the rhythm of Leviathan, the experience can be at turns transcendent and overwhelming. I’ve never seen anything like the sight of seagulls at night, floating in the distance alongside the ship, their flaps of white emerging like persistent heartbeats in the darkness. It’s breathtaking. Equally arresting, in a negative way, is the first moment the camera plunges underwater – and stays there. At that point I had become so attuned with the film’s point of view that I felt the need to gulp for air.
There are indeed people on the ship, but they’re given the same cold stare as everything else that comes before the camera. We spend minutes in close up on the wrinkled skin surrounding one man’s eye; later we watch the relentless shucking of shells that have been caught by the crew. Leviathan is almost cruelly true to the mundane nature of manual labor, so that the work we witness feels as merciless as the crashing waves.
Unlike Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch (which gets a winking nod here), Leviathan doesn’t look to its humans to provide drama. And yet, amazingly, mini-narratives begin to unfold, either because of the filmmakers’ eye for such moments or because of our need, as viewers, to see everything in terms of narrative. I found myself unreasonably invested in watching a fish head sliding back and forth in front of a drainage slot. Would it wash out? Stay aboard? I’ll leave you in suspense. Similarly, a wounded bird’s struggle to climb over a crate – grabbing with its beak, feet flailing to push off the slick surface – was oddly engrossing. And as for the moment when the camera plops us into a tank of stunned fish, where they float back and forth in a state of glassy-eyed purgatory? Few horror films have been as existentially terrifying.
Of course, there’s a chance you’ll sit through all of this and simply be bored. Which is understandable: repetition and monotony are two of the picture’s unconventional tools. Yet to discount this remarkable film entirely is to discount too many elemental things: color, light, motion, sound.