by Angelo Muredda What is there to say about Leviathan, a nearly-wordless maelstrom of ravenous seagulls, blood-red waves, and severed fish-heads piled to the horizon? Colleagues at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel take the sensory as seriously as the ethnography here, producing a truly singular documentary account of a commercial fishing vessel off the New Bedford coast that puts the so-called immersive quality of 3-D baubles like Avatar to shame. Their work more than lives up to the biblical title, delivering what might be described as a fish-eye view of the Apocalypse.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel treat their dozen or so waterproof cameras with all the delicacy of a child beating the hell out of a new toy: the lucky ones are strapped to the fishermen's bodies, left to glimpse their intricate tattoos and sunken eyes, while the rest are tossed up in the air or into the waves and at the mercy of gravity. It seems precious when you put it into words, but in a sense the sea is the camera operator, determining the ebb and flow of certain shots, including a wildly disconcerting sequence that finds the camera sloshing about on the floor in a blood-soaked fish grave, with the dead and dying creatures sliding ever closer to our surrogate eye.
There's a brutish sort of beauty to moments like that, but the film isn't short on lyricism, either, especially when it comes to the birds that hover over the ship like Miss Havisham's vulture relations in Great Expectations, waiting to feed when the time is right. Our first nighttime view of them is nigh incomprehensible: glanced from the unsteady vantage point of the water the camera's bobbing in, they seem at first to be stars, until you realize they aren't fixed points in the sky but a roving mass of predators. The uncanniness of this image is only amplified by an upside-down air raid later on that effectively re-stages Finding Nemo's climax as if it were a horror movie.
You could make the case that Leviathan is really about underpaid labour in extreme conditions, or the sketchy ethics of gutting the environment 100 fish at a time, and there's enough there to support either reading. The film's strength, though, is in its flat refusal of such exposition, which ought to be reserved for the post-screening debrief. On its most basic, visceral level, this isn't a documentary so much as a bumpy ride through a dark tunnel. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Programme: Wavelengths