Bound to an obvious literary precursor in Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s epic set on the same treacherous seas off the coast of New Bedford, Leviathan may have as much in common with James Joyce’s Ulysses, specifically its third chapter. In it, Stephen Dedalus’s missing glasses affect how he perceives, and thus how Joyce writes, his walk along a beach. Objects are rendered not as precise objects, but as impressionistic streaks of color, and sounds take on an active role instead of the things that emit them. Thus, “The dog’s bark ran towards him, stopped, ran back again,” instead of the dog itself.
Leviathan operates along the same wavelength. Less a documentary than a total, subjective immersion, its bewildering aesthetic, grimy images of an Atlantic fishing ship shot on low-quality cameras, is made alternately more abstract and concrete by its soundtrack. The waves’ roar, then, provides a sense of place as much as the whitecaps rolling on top of black ice water, and the squelch of caught fish writhing on deck communicates their impending deaths as vividly as seeing them pathetically flop around. Above all is the endless, scraping shriek of sea-worn metal, every gear and chain sounding every day as if this is the day something, or everything, will break and send this unnatural vessel to the bottom of the waters it plunders. And yet, it’s only that constant noise that offers any assurance that the ship still works and struggles against an ocean consciously hostile to this unnatural invader.
That both the ocean and ship should resemble characters locked in an epic, dramatic conflict doesn’t seem a narrativizing move on the film’s part. Aborted plans to ground the seafaring footage with more classical documentation of New England ports leave Leviathan completely restricted to the ship, with no context to explain the fishermen’s routines to viewers. As such, the film feels agenda-less, instead a mere reflection of a microcosm into which it has been dropped. In other words, it didn’t start the war, only recorded it.
And war is often exactly what it looks like. The poor image quality produced by the GoPro cameras used to make the movie render the ocean as a black mass, a tar that gushes over the sides of the boat to coat the entire deck. When a camera is left to float in the water and dip beneath the surface, the eerie patches of underwater calm play as a gathering of energy before re-exposure to air fills the speakers with vicious squall. For their part, the humans who dully toil on these dangerous waves are inured to their own grisly tasks; giant nets stretch up on the ship in tubular formation, making transparent esophagi that force out hordes of fish through mechanical peristalsis. Once the fish, or stingrays, or clams or whatever else comes on board, the men set to preparing them with the same worn-down but unceasing efficiency as the ship’s machinery, cleaving the wings off stingray with a single machete stroke or beheading and gutting entire schools within minutes. The film takes in these sights with dispassion, neither valorizing the men who lead this hard life nor recoiling in horror, even when the ship appears to “vomit” blood and fish heads out of its drainage areas.
This remove successfully avoids ascribing thematic intent to a film that teems with possible readings. To even cite Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel as directors seems a regressive, uncomprehending means of giving purpose to what they merely facilitated, handing off a number of cameras they themselves didn’t fully understand how to use to the ship’s crew. Referring to them as such uses the language of cinema as we understand it to describe something that looks, sounds, and feels so unprecedented. Were its accomplishments not so singular and perhaps unrepeatable (even other works of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab share only basic similarities with it), Leviathan could mark the most significant step forward for the possibilities of film since Godard.
And Godard comes to mind throughout the film. The screech of gulls that emerge frightfully from the total blackness of the sky around the ship recall the director’s favored means of disruption since the ’80s. The first images that fade up from that void—a red jacket, blue gloves, and a yellow chain—even mimic the pop-art color schemes of Godard’s early color work. But the main comparisons between the two are not specific recollections, but the film’s possible fulfillment of the director’s longstanding aims of freeing the cinema with an aesthetic socialism. Godard’s tragedy has always been his inability to extricate even his most expansive and giving works from his firmly auteurial voice, but Leviathan truly belongs to everyone and, when cameras bob in the water with chum or fly off with gulls, no one. The film ends in a moment of total apocalypse, out of human hands as the ship lets out one final howl, a terrifying collapse that epitomizes the movie’s leveling effect, and the glimmer of liberation embedded within it.
The rough nature of Leviathan’s look is a fundamental, and integral, part of the film, and the rampant black crush and inconsistent colors that would be seen as catastrophic on other home-video releases are here a sign of fidelity. And sometimes, a GoPro cannot help but capture an exquisite-looking moment, as in a shot that holds on a fish head never quite falling off the side of the boat as light glows off its scales and wind fluffs the loose skin of its serrated throat. A sick beauty is encoded in these images, streaks of color that coalesce into recognizable forms only with the passage of time. The audio is similarly unimpeachable in its assault on conventional taste, an undulating crash of white noise that nevertheless boasts a surprising crispness and distinction of each sound.
Still Life / Nature Morte is a 30-minute short film made from an unbroken shot taken from the camera set up in the ship’s tiny commons as seamen take a break from their grueling schedules to stare with tired faces and tired minds at a TV, warming up with some coffee and making small talk that, as with the spare speech heard in the full feature, is muffled under all the industrial noise. The deafening hum of the ship exposes the lie of the title, a reminder of not only the constant movement of the floor beneath the fishermen’s feet, but of the very impossibility of enjoying a still, tranquil moment in this environment. Cinema Guild’s Blu-Ray also includes the theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by Cyril Neyrat.
The most innovative film of the decade comes to home video as the reference disc from hell.