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Posted by martinteller on August 20, 2014

Imagine that Frederick Wiseman, Stan Brakhage and Gaspar Noé teamed up to make a movie.  And perhaps they watched Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts for inspiration.  You might get something like this unique film from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel.  Filmed on a commercial fishing trawler with miniature digital “GoPro” cameras mounted everywhere, it’s a “documentary” with no narration, no explanation, no context.  It does not seek to edify or enlighten or proselytize.  It is purely experiential.

Forget any pre-conceived images of crusty, colorful old salts swapping stories on a quaint little fishing boat.  Forget also any notion you might have (as I did) that modern commercial fishing is a high-tech operation, finely tuned, clean and precise and utilizing the latest state-of-the-art equipment.  This is not a well-oiled machine.  It is a poorly-oiled machine, creaking and groaning and squealing and banging.  The cacophony is ever-present.  Chains need to be unraveled, nets are battered around until they give up their catch, coils of cable so old and worn they look like worms need to be cranked onto spools while men make sure they don’t cross and get tangled.  Workers do their jobs swiftly and with surprisingly little attention, as quantity over quality appears to be the rule.  A man sorts through a hold full of clams, rapidly chucking the good ones into a bucket and sweeping the broken ones back out to sea with his boot.

The boat is a floating abattoir.  The boat is Death.  Not that the film appears to be giving any sort of anti-fishing (or anti-fish-eating) message, but the images are often morbid and gory: guts being hurled around, blood dripping from railings, a pile of heads lingering in a corner… apparently forgotten by everyone except the gulls that hover like vultures.  You get to witness the bloody carnage from the perspective of a fisherman, a fish, a bird, the ship… and maybe God.

I had heard that the film was notable for its visuals.  I expected perhaps gorgeous Malickian meditations, sun-dappled waves and so forth.  No no, not so.  The images are harsh and rough, frequently marked by abstraction that leaves you wondering what you’re looking at.  It’s impossible to avoid using the word “disorienting”.  Cameras are positioned at angles that sometimes feel impossible.  One scene has you watching stingrays fly overhead before you dive into the water to see the birds swimming under the surface.  Deep, inky blacks are punctuated by vague geometric shapes in sharp, vibrant colors… shapes that suggest actual objects without actually depicting them.  The tiny cameras are pushed beyond their limits, resulting in odd visuals such as static that resembles droplets of mist cascading through the air.

Again, don’t go looking to this film for any sort of knowledge or story or characters.  It’s an experience.  One can find precedents for the individual aspects of this movie, but I feel like Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have put the elements together in a way that feels fresh.  I will admit there were a few parts that tried my patience, that weren’t as entrancing as others.  But there is something exciting and visceral (in more ways than one) about it.  Rating: Very Good (81)


3 Responses to “Leviathan”

  1. mountanto said

    For a second, I thought you’d somehow managed to see Zyagintsev’s Leviathan before it even got a U.S. release and I was prepared to be super jealous. But I also really want to see this.

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