NYFF 2012: ‘Leviathan’ is an interesting experiment but difficult entertainment

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Leviathan

Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel

France/UK/USA, 2012

It’s impossible to discuss the documentary Leviathan without comparing it to co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s previous film, Sweetgrass. Sweetgrass was a documentary about sheep herders in Montana, but it eschewed all of the typical tropes of a documentary: no talking heads, no narration, no soundtrack. It was simply still camera shots of the herd and herders, sometimes several minutes long, presented without commentary. Leviathan is the same concept, but this time applied to the commercial fishing industry, which is a less interesting subject to be seen in this form.

The purpose of this style is to show, without being strident or preachy, the intrusion of modernity into nature. There’s no more amazing shot in Sweetgrass than the one of a sheep herder standing on a magnificent hilltop, complaining into his cell phone to an unknown family member about how difficult his job is. The message is clear: human commerce is transforming all of this natural beauty into just another day at the office. Thus, the biggest problem with Leviathan is that there is very little natural beauty on display. The fishing boat is basically a factory unto itself, and the audience is receiving an extensive tour of that factory, but the rest of the world around it gets short shrift.

The camera occasionally will discover something unusual or lovely, such as a flight of seagulls or a crab camouflaged amongst a flood of seashells. However, the majority of natural footage in this film comes from cameras mounted on the sides of the boat, at or near the waterline, plunging into and out of the surf over and over for what seems like hours. There are precious few fish to be seen in these sequences; at times the surf is so thick that there’s precious little of anything to be seen. Viewers who experienced motion sickness at handheld-camera films like The Blair Witch Project should avoid Leviathan like the plague.

Sweetgrass always had the incredible beauty of the Montana countryside to fall back on, since it allowed the viewer a space in which to contemplate the film’s message if nothing interesting was happening on-screen. No such contemplative space is offered in Leviathan; a good amount of the film takes place inside the boat with precious little of the ocean to be seen, and many of the aquatic shots are at night. The title of this film implies that these men are dealing with something so massive and dangerous that they can barely contemplate it, but the film does not deliver upon that promise in any way.

Leviathan opens with an title card quoting from the Bible’s book of Job, about how such men who brave the deep ought have fear of it. During the closing credits a pair of lost vessels are mentioned; the film is dedicated to them. But in between those two events there is nothing to inspire any sort of apprehension, either in these men or in the audience. It’s an interesting artistic statement to demonstrate that these men have had a perfectly natural fear dissipated by mind-numbing drudgery, but in practice it means that an audience has to watch a lot of mind-numbing drudgery, and very few audiences will stand for that.

-Mark Young

The New York Film Festival celebrates 50 years and runs from September 28 to October 14, 2012. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.

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