Leviathan: Locarno Review

Leviathan - H 2012
Beauty and horror on the high seas

Artfully abstract documentary explores life and death aboard New England fishing boat.

LOCARNO - Shot on board a fishing vessel off the New England coast, this experimental documentary has so far proven to be the most stylistically bold and visually striking world premiere at this year’s Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. A wordless montage of footage filmed on small digital cameras from every dark corner of the boat, Leviathan is an immersive examination of a highly mechanized industrial process, the men who work at it and the thousands of poor fish who cross their path. A symphony of murky, grainy, jittery images and clanking, whirring, droning sounds, this is an abstract audio-visual experience as much as it is an observational film.

Based at Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the Anglo-French directing duo of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel specialize in work that straddles the borders between visual art, documentary and anthropology. Some of their previous films are now part of the permanent collections in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the British Museum in London. Although probably too esoteric for a full big-screen release, this US/UK/France co-production will undoubtedly screen at festivals, in art galleries and on highbrow TV channels.

Despite the lack of dialogue or editorial voice, there are flashes of literary intelligence and dark humor at work in Leviathan. The film’s Biblical title invokes both the best-known work of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, while the minimal credits include the full Latin names of all the fish harvested on screen. They are also written in a gothic font that suggests heavy metal albums and horror movies.

From its isolated nocturnal setting to it blood-splattered scenes of mass seafood slaughter, there is certainly something hellish about Leviathan, whose murky hand-held aesthetic initially feels like the set-up for a mock-documentary monster movie in the spirit of The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. It would not seem too surprising if some mythic maritime beast like Jaws or Cthulhu lurched out of these inky depths and sucked the crew down to a watery grave.

Some of the deadpan observational sequences in Leviathan become overlong and repetitive, and the deliberate lack of context or commentary feels frustrating at times. But this seemingly random process also throws up some arrestingly powerful imagery, including macabre close-up shots of discarded fish heads waltzing across a wet floor as the boat pitches and rolls, and a squadron of seagulls swooping over a mini-camera as it bobs in and out of the ocean.

With their inspired use of cutting-edge camera technology to explore one of the oldest trades in human history, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have made a highly original film of uncompromising, other-worldly beauty. Leviathan demands to be seen, even if it means you never eat seafood again.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival screening, August 8

Production companies: Arrête Ton Cinema, Harbor Picture Company
Directors: Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Producers: Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Cinematography: Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Editors: Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Sales company: Arrête Ton Cinema
Rating TBC, 87 minutes