“It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.”
To no one’s surprise, the end of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel‘s documentary Leviathan does not contain the usual “no animals were harmed during the making of this film” since the piece itself is literally the harrowingly horrific depiction of North Atlantic sea creatures’ deaths. Whether decapitated fish being filleted and thrown in bins, sting rays de-winged before mid-sections are tossed aside, or a haul of clams/oysters cracked open before their empty shells can be kicked back into the ocean, we see everything that goes into the process of stocking our grocery stores with seafood amidst the roaring wake of angry water and the monotony of a gruelingly thankless job. It’s nature versus machine as the screaming metal wrenches into the howling waves; a hulking behemoth on a rampage, scooping up whatever’s in its path.
The title is a foreboding one, equating this monstrous fishing vessel with the Old Testament’s giant beast—especially within a New Bedford, MA that Herman Melville used to set his novel Moby Dick. But it isn’t about mankind raping the sea for its own benefit or stealing marine life to be bought and sold so the port’s tenuous economy can be sustained. Well, to some maybe it is as a complete lack of narrative puts meaning into the beholder’s hands. Its true nightmarish quality lies in its experimental portrayal of this battle between fishermen and the Atlantic to appear as though we’re right in the action. Shot with tiny waterproof cameras durable enough to sustain plenty of physical abuse yet lacking high definition, we’re transported inside the carnage occurring on the ship’s hull and beyond.
There is a systematic progression that eventually shows the process from multiple angles—we see the net emptied onto the boat from the fisherman’s viewpoint, the fishes’, the birds’, and even underwater—but we never learn who these men are, where they come from, where they’re going, or what they’re thinking. This isn’t some cable channel’s attempt at reality TV with confessionals and heightened conflict courtesy of a camera crew being in the “actors’” faces 24/7. This is reality in and of itself, stripped of forced plotting and manufactured emotional connections to characters on the payroll. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have given us a purely visceral experience wherein our own morality and beliefs infer upon how we interpret this uncensored presentation. They supply the means while we discover the purpose from within.
To some Leviathan is simply footage of a job while to others it may be a commentary on mankind’s brutality towards creatures deemed inferior. We can read into it with philosophical argumentation or religious one; see it as an exercise in absolute non-fictional documentation or an elaborate artwork carefully constructed to expose us to the helplessness of prey and their predators’ indifference towards murdering them without pause. It will shock some with its clinical presentation of living beings as mere cogs within an expertly honed assembly line, sliced to bits with a precise rhythm devoid of thought or remorse. Knives cut the edible flesh away as the disembodied waste slides back and forth atop the ship’s slick floors before unceremoniously returning to its ocean home inside a crimson river—and the show simply goes on.
But there is a beauty in its brutality, a sort of orchestral meter that drives us forward. The lo-fi sounds fill your ears with organic screams as the war wages on—the sea thrashing against the vessel in an attempt to swallow it whole while the men aboard try to take as many prisoners as possible. There is also an abstract expressionistic quality at play where the fast moving waves submerge the cameras in a swirl of white foam, putting the motion’s massive brushstrokes onscreen as though a living canvas. Add to this the wonderment of flying with a flock of seagulls upside down or swimming with starfish through the cloudy sea and you’ll understand just how special this film is despite its lack of a “true story”.
We become the omniscient viewer, watching, judging, accepting. We’re disoriented from the start as up, down, left, and right merge with the ever-changing camera angles making it all a formal exercise of aesthetic alongside its an exposé of the harsh conditions thrust upon man and animal alike. It’s simultaneously literal and figurative depending on your state of mind—a moving photograph capturing what’s seen and nothing more. It’s a conduit to help us understand the power of Mother Nature against the weary soldiers sent in opposition. Leviathan exemplifies our need for adventure, danger, and meaning towards our purpose on Earth as a manifestation of the chaotic dance we dance that combines God and Satan into one as each action performed proves both good and evil. It’s everything and nothing; life and death; beauty and despair.
[1-3] A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and VÈrÈna Paravel’s LEVIATHAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.