Written and directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
Shot using multiple unmanned digital cameras on an Atlantic Ocean fishing trawler, Leviathan plunges us directly into the ship’s chaotic machinery, revealing a dissonant, alien world. The latest collaborative work from anthropologists and filmmakers, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, is a profoundly original documentary and a staggering, hallucinatory piece of cinema. There is no narration and no interviews; from the outset, we are thrust unaided and disorientated into the cacophony, bombarded with anarchic point-of-view shots and haunting, discordant sounds.
Named after the Biblical sea monster that came to symbolise evil, Leviathan has the atmosphere of a sci-fi horror film, recalling the dark, brutal industrialism of the Alien franchise. The dimly-lit ship is characterised by clunking metal and ominous steel cables, while the men themselves are dressed in colourful waterproofs and communicate in strange, muffled voices, distorted by the wind. The fish are bizarre, incongruous creatures with portentous, bulging eyes, their body parts left strewn across the ship, dismembered heads bobbing obscenely on the waves. Even the seagulls appear to be sinister parasites, swarming around the fresh blood that is released into the sea.
Most portrayals of fishermen depict them as heroic and self-sacrificing, battling against the elements to bring their catch back to land. But those in Leviathan are represented as subservient to the ship and the industry, unflinchingly going about their raucous slaughter like guards of a particularly ruthless concentration camp. The shots that show them gutting the fish are disturbingly visceral, with sharp knives piercing the skin as if it were a relentless slasher film; one image shows a saw-like metal construct wholly coated in vivid, red blood. The disorientating style elicits these connotations; images are presented without justification or explanation, which serves to intensify the horror.
The cameras are tossed around with the natural rhythms of the sea, giving the film a hypnotic effect, and capture incredible sounds that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. As well as the noise of the machinery, we hear recurrent, musical resonance, coming from either the movement of the trawler or somewhere in the depths of the sea. The sound design is stunning and, combined with the mesmerising visuals, results in an immersive sensory experience that is sustained for the best part of 90 minutes. Leviathan is a groundbreaking documentary, giving us an unparalleled cinematic insight into the manual operations of one of the toughest industries in the world today. At the same time, it is not really about commercial fishing at all, rather an experiment in the immediacy of experience and the instinctive power of film.