Anyone who enjoys overpowering cinematic sensation and watching people do a job will be predisposed to like Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s avant-garde documentary about life aboard a commercial fishing vessel. Leviathan is an immersive experience, plunging viewers into darkness and chaos, amid a rush of vivid color and rapid movement. It isn’t meant to be informative in any conventional sense: There are no voiceovers, interviews, or even onscreen titles, beyond a citation from the book of Job at the start of the film. Instead, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have mounted cameras around a ship, and on the helmets of some of the crew, all to show the process of catching, sorting, and gutting fish as a noisy, roiling chore, involving speed, muck, and hard physical labor.
Often, films about work and/or nature tend to be lulling, but not so with Leviathan, which aims to leave viewers feeling unmoored—like Workingman’s Death as reinterpreted by Gaspar Noé. Those fishermen wearing camera-helmets rarely stay in one place; they’re rushing about, tugging at nets, and looking quickly up into the sky and down into the sea. All of which means it’s difficult at times to process exactly what’s happening in Leviathan, especially given the film’s sound design, which mixes the intimate, muffled sound of water with the hellish clank of machinery. Yet even when the action is confusing, Leviathan’s texture is extraordinary, as fluorescent lights play across wet rubber coats and gloves, while pinkish entrails slosh about. Throughout, the natural and the mechanical battle spectacularly.
Not everything in the movie is a knockout. Whenever Castaing-Taylor and Paravel focus on the crewmembers’ sunken faces, Leviathan is less engaging than when it just shows heaping piles of fish writhing on a swaying deck, their eyes bugged out from the pressure of the nets. And the absence of any larger context might lead viewers to make presumptions about what Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are saying about the commercial fishing industry, with their long takes of rough-looking men hacking animals to pieces. But the “you are there” approach means Leviathan is filled with askew images unlike any other. It’s difficult to describe the eerie beauty of flocking seabirds photographed from below, or the surreal effect of the shot of an opening in the side of the ship, where discarded fish parts slop out, as though the boat itself were retching.