It begins pitch-dark and wild, disorienting and inexplicably terrifying. Is this a horror movie? Chains, white light, white caps, a rusty hull, rain, intermittent metallic clang, indistinct voices buried in the clamour, different coloured raincoats obscuring the identities of those wearing them, camera angles with no regard for which side is up. Water everywhere. I went to a sold out screening of Leviathan during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival without the slightest notion as to what we all were in for. The lack of context made our plunge into the film only more bracing and thrilling. This opening sequence I’m attempting to characterize went on for perhaps 20 minutes, and it was some of the most visceral 20 minutes of cinema I’ve seen in some time. Nothing in the rest of the film matches it. How could it?
We get our bearings. We are on a ship in the North Atlantic. Cut to the interior and we hear heavy metal and we see an arm, and then eyes, and a deeply lined face. Soon we’re back up on deck, and you get to thinking that yes, this is a horror movie, torture porn even—providing you identify with the fish. Think about it: rough men, hacking up bodies, pouring buckets of blood and water into the sea. We’re trapped in a floating slaughterhouse. Carcasses abound. This could be the full-colour marine version of George Franju’s Blood of the Beasts. Sure, I suppose we can call Leviathan a documentary, in the loosest possible sense of the word, about fishing, but the film is not here to teach us anything about the fishing industry, not directly; rather, it offers an engulfing sensory experience. (Funny coincidence: Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli, which features another of the most stunning fishing sequences in cinema history, was also screening at TIFF 2012.)
A mermaid tattoo; frames so full of gulls the images almost become abstract (and invoke The Birds). Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel have assembled countless moments of savage poetry. Both had fishermen fathers and thus consider the film a “personal” work. Leviathan was shot over the course of a half-dozen trips to sea, with a fleet of little plastic GoPro cameras, which the filmmakers attached to everything and everyone in sight, even tossing them into the sea in waterproof containers. On the level of what some call “pure” cinema, this is truly a work of immense invention.
But the excitement does drain toward the end, perhaps because we realize that the film is, I think, partly intended as an homage to labour, to those who work at sea. And on this level, I mean, come on. It is difficult to detect any real interest in, much less compassion or feeling for, human beings in Leviathan. A guy slowly falls asleep at a table. We spend an awful lot of time looking at some dude’s elbow. These are not the film’s finest moments. See Leviathan—and, for god’s sake, see it in the cinema—but see it for the sprawling thrill and the audacity and the beauty of colours that new technology and immense craft and sheer punk rock adventurousness are granting us. But seeing it so as to connect with the people on-screen? Not so much.