One can debate the thematic power of Leviathan, which obliquely broaches topics of the ethicality of commercial fishing, the nature of work and the struggle between man and nature, but I’d find it nearly impossible to quibble over the raw, visceral, purely cinematic power of the film. Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Leviathan is the latest film out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Castaing-Taylor directed 2009’s similarly stunning Sweetgrass with the organization. The pure, mesmerizing contemplation of the life and work of shepherds in that film has been replaced by unblinking awe at the furious, overwhelming nature of life on a commercial fishing vessel in the North Atlantic.
There’s no contextual information to be found and the only dialogue is half-caught bits of incidental chatter and the numbing narration of The Deadliest Catch as a crewmember watches sleepily in one of the film’s brief moments of sensory respite. The contrast here is perhaps too on-the-nose, but as someone who used to write voiceover for reality TV, I can especially appreciate the jab at the wide gap between reality and the banalities of its TV counterpart.
Elsewhere, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s cameras plunge the viewer into a series of disorienting images, observing huge nets full of fish, the massive machinery required to make the operation work and the ever-present flock of gulls overhead hoping for a bite. The versatile, waterproof GoPro cameras used here allow for a variety of unique, sometimes otherworldly perspectives. We slide around the hull with bits of gutted fish and plummet under the water over and over as the bow heaves. The rush of imagery underwater is sometimes reminiscent of Stan Brakhage’s especially nightmarish shorts, a maelstrom of abstract shapes and colors fighting against each other for supremacy.
The film’s use of sound is just as overwhelming. The loud, clamoring mix offers up a haunting, surreal soundscape of clanging metal, electrical whirring and thunderous waves, building to a crescendo that’s almost unbearable by the film’s end.
In many respects, Leviathan is one of the most effective horror films of the past decade. Its avant-garde beauty and ugliness coexist in a film that is absolutely riveting and exhausting. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have expanded the borders of what modern documentary filmmaking looks like. It’s truly exciting to think about where they’re going next.
The Blu-ray Disc
Cinema Guild presents Leviathan in a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer that perfectly reproduces the inherent limitations and capabilities of the GoPro cameras. Like the DV work of Pedro Costa, this is one of the great works of digital filmmaking, where the murky shadow reproduction and less-than-perfect image stability can be exploited to create an image that is stunning in its own way. The high-def transfer captures those delicate features in a way DVD couldn’t. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is incredibly active and immersive, and your subwoofer is guaranteed to get a good workout, as the roaring mix envelops you in this world.
The disc includes an outtake/short film titled Still Life / Nature Morte, a single shot of the ship’s galley in which crew members take a break from their duties. The film’s theatrical trailer and a selection of other Cinema Guild trailers are also included. The enclosed insert features an essay by French critic Cyril Neyrat.
The Bottom Line
An unforgettable cinematic experience granted a scrupulous home video release, Leviathan comes highly recommended.