Some systems, for all their ruthless efficiency and invisible control, seem guided only by chaos, like an anthill teeming with activity, its scurrying agents adhering to patterns we can’t perceive. Leviathan, an experimental documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, concerns a system whose very functionality seems incomprehensible: a commercial fishing operation so wholly in thrall to the churning agitations of its environment that nature itself not only has the power, but the will to topple it. Fish aren’t so much heaved from the sea as they are wrenched from it, jerked with the force of market pressure, the fishermen at work a hulking mass of bodies made as much a fixture of the system as the machinery roaring around them. The ship looks vaguely alien, like an earthbound Nostromo adrift in the deep space of the North Atlantic, the New Bedford coast a veritable new world. Remarkably, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, working under the aegis of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, have managed to present this essentially unknowable system to us from within its own borders, so that the perspective adopted belongs to it, as though viewed from a cog rather than from an observer of the machine. In other words, Leviathan devises a ruthlessly efficient and invisibly controlled system of its own, one seemingly governed by the chaos of life aboard this ship. To quote Phil Coldiron in Cinema Scope, it “takes on the shape of the system it describes.” And so it becomes a thundering, alien machine.
The approach is radical and crucially modern, only possible now: Castaing-Taylor and Paravel took dozens of miniature GoPro cameras—durable, versatile camcorders favored by skateboarders and extreme-sports fanatics—and fixed them in and around every available crevice, mast, deck, or fisherman’s helmet, the footage then compiled and composed with the rhythm of a city symphony at sea. Leviathan thus exists within impossible spaces: cameras plunge into the drink, careen wildly, skid and glide like refuse, launch well into the air. It becomes so that you can no longer even ask yourself how such and such shot or effect was achieved; its impossibility is central to the disorienting effect, to the sense that you’re seeing the world as nobody does, and there’s magic in not knowing. And because the inherent threat of losing cameras to the abyss, of images caught but drowned forever, looms larger every moment, one feels as though there are real stakes. There’s also real fear: As a visceral experience, this film is overwhelming, its images as shocking as they are precarious. A shot which begins on the side of the boat, observing torrents of blood and guts gush without end into the water below, is overtaken suddenly by waves, by deathly cold water rushing over the lens. Once the camera is fully submerged, the sea becomes a blur of color and noise like something out of Brakhage, until we are lifted, slowly, back to the surface, where an army of seagulls bears down on us hungrily.
Life on the boat is life on the edge, and Leviathan, finally, is cinema on the edge. It shows us a world, ours but unrecognizable, as we’ve never seen it before. Indeed, insofar as it displays a Vertovian interest in capturing life as machines and bodies in motion, you could call it Fish with a Movie Camera. After brandishing a brief passage from the Book of Job (written in a quintessentially heavy metal-ish font that perfectly captures the film’s tonal combination of apocalyptic grandeur and dark gallows humor), Leviathan lurches jarringly to life, opening with streaks and blotches of light smudged across a pitch-black sky. Much of what we see across the 87 minutes to come can be reduced to splashes of low-res color forming in the digital night, and it’s this element of the film’s aesthetic that most surprises: The sea has simply never been depicted in this fashion, the deep blues and greens of seawater have never seemed so dark or impenetrable, the tangle of iron and steel of a ship has never torn through the dark so unnervingly. One of the final images of the film transforms a distant flock of gulls at night into a gorgeous, otherworldly abstraction, the mass of wings recast as eruptions of white and grey. The film reconstructs a milieu as action painting, and what results looks unforgettable.
Paravel told the New York Times that casting a multitude of cameras across the boat allowed them to “distribute the authorship” of the film, which feels appropriate given the proliferation of meanings already assigned to it, each claimed definitive. For some, Leviathan is a meditation on the brute force of labor, on the manner in which men become functions of the machine on which they toil. For others, Leviathan is about death; it taps into a fear of mortality that presides over all action, labor or otherwise. But even unmoored from meaning entirely, divorced from any governing ideological premise, Leviathan is a titanic achievement, a visceral overload whose impact registers immediately and with great force. We may delight even in its miniature graces: a small bird’s struggle to climb over a raised platform of sorts resembles silent slapstick comedy; a severed fish head’s drifting undulations is infused with the dramatic tension of a thriller; and at one point, as a throbbing net of captured fish begins to unload and fill a room, the camera’s rapid disappearance becomes cause for genuine shock and alarm. The fear, of course, is always unfounded: We know that the cameras remain safe because we are watching the footage. But the frenzy and furor of life (and death) on view throws us off our bearings, and suddenly the impossible seems possible after all. “The cinema,” Godard said in Les Mepris, “substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires.” Leviathan does quite the opposite: It gazes upon a kind of hell, an underworld of brutal, unending labor, where humanity is nullified by the screeching cacophony of chains and motors and waves.