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‘Leviathan’ overwhelms with its signature boldness and rigorous conceit

‘Leviathan’ overwhelms with its signature boldness and rigorous conceit


Written by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel
Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel
France, UK, USA, 2012

We’re cast right into the clanging of metal and the harsh winds of the North Atlantic. Though ostensibly advertised as an immersive look into the commercial fishing industry, our viewing lens is at first murky and dim. This sort of visceral thrust is at once foreign and familiar, a transporting non-linear journey keen on the laborious modes of living at sea. Though our location and proximity are known, this particular wordless Maritime milieu couldn’t be any more obscure. This is Leviathan, a new experimental documentary from filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. The former last made 2009’s Sweetgrass, a documentary that followed modern-day shepherds as they lead their flocks of sheep into the mountains of Montana. This time, the summer pastures of Sweetgrass are substituted with the unforgiving waters that man boldly traverses.

As a form of narrative storytelling, Leviathan is almost dead-on-arrival. Its daunting and almost impenetrable opening minutes are something to behold as it casts aside any preconceived Deadliest Catch mentality. The experience registers as both primal and intimate, a new kind of cinema that overwhelms with its signature boldness and rigorous conceit. The stunning visuals and soundscape depict a concord between man, machine and the sea. It’s in this unforgiving cycle that we come to find our footing, while at the same time losing ourselves in the vast darkness and abstract beauty that Leviathan teeters between.

To capture the surplus of movement caught on the ship and at sea, tiny waterproof cameras were used to place the viewer within the muck and disorder at all times. Long static shots eventually capture both the lucid intensity of this expedition and the sullen souls that lead it. The sound of the machinery functioning on board is often akin to a harsh screaming and pleading of a ghost we cannot see. Though the filmmakers strive for a natural endurance test, there’s a mythic quality to the accumulation of sounds and images that wields a dreamlike trance on the viewer.


The crew is mostly silent, though their muffled voices and weathered bodies command full attention. They wear tattoos and worn faces as badges of imprisonment aboard the ship (for better or for worse). The process of their labor is long, quiet and without glamour. The crew’s haul of sea life is often packed and plentiful as the flapping and crawling that eventually makes its way onto the ship is directly offered up. The camera rolls around in the blood and guts on display, only to follow it up with a marvelous shot of the ship’s exterior that captures the pouring out of this red sewage.

Though at times repetitive and taxing, Leviathan contains its fair share of awe as well: whether it be the bobbing up-and-down of a camera under water while offering glimpses of a pack of birds, or a lonely soul perched on the edge of the ship at night, there resides an intoxicating grace amid the controlled chaos at work here. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s obliquely molded film is a clear-cut “take it or leave it” transportive wonder, one which operates strictly on its own terms and functions as cinema of the highest order.

— Ty Landis