THE BLOG
05/19/2013 06:35 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2013

Leviathan : A Watery and Brutal un-Documentary

2013-05-18-1boat.jpg

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and VÈrÈna Paravel's LEVIATHAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

There should be a warning for this movie, because while it's labeled a documentary, with its chiaroscuro lighting, it could be called an impressionist kaleidoscope dream, culled from real-life footage. If you go to this film thinking of Michael Moore style documentary filmmaking, it won't be long before you wonder what you've gotten yourself into, because this is entirely different. A closer comparison might be Werner Herzog's documentary Lessons of Darkness, but even that film seems downright narrative in comparison.

2013-05-18-8side.jpg

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and VÈrÈna Paravel's LEVIATHAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Leviathan opens with images that are midnight dark and so abstract that it is probably ten minutes in before you have a sense of where you are, much less what you are seeing. This kind of loss of direction continues throughout the film, as cameras jump from underwater viewing, to the interior of a fishing ship, to gulls flying just above the ocean's surface. My viewing companion complained of nausea more than once.

2013-05-18-7underwater.jpg

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and VÈrÈna Paravel's LEVIATHAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Filmed in what was once the whaling capital of the world as well as Melville's inspiration for Moby Dick, New Bedford, Massachusetts, the harbor is still the country's largest fishing port. The filmmakers, Lucien Castiang-Taylor and Verena Paravel, follow a ground fish trawler where we see what appears to be a nighttime fishing expedition.

2013-05-18-2gulls.jpg

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and VÈrÈna Paravel's LEVIATHAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

The film plunges you into a world of water, clanging machinery and streams of fish. With absolutely no dialog or narration, you are left with only your senses to interpret what you see. The cinéma vérité style of filming is ragged; the lense is often covered with water or steamy with moisture, sometimes it is submerged and other times it is impossible to know what you are seeing as it appears the camera is overhead and upside down. These images jump from one water filled environment to another and it's more than dizzying. There is no soundtrack, only the endless sound of the ocean crashing against the ship, alongside the ominous groan of the machines that lift the heavy chained netting in and out of the water. No musical intonations are here to direct how you should feel about what you are viewing.

If you come to this film bringing with you any romanticism or sentimentality, you are in for a rough time. Shots of refuse fish heads and bones are dumped into the ocean and we see the fragments streaming into the sea underwater, bloody water pours out of the ship's side port when excess water is drained, and we watch as men routinely hook stingrays and jaggedly slice them apart, tossing their remains aside.

2013-05-18-10head.jpg

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and VÈrÈna Paravel's LEVIATHAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

A severed fish head pulses on the deck of the ship while in the background the ocean is pounding and spraying blackly. It's this kind of primal, harsh beauty that is at once brutal and poetic, and makes the film mesmerizing. Another image contrasts a giant flock of gulls with a brilliant blue sky and the inklike water, and feels more surreal than realistic.

2013-05-18-9fish.jpg

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and VÈrÈna Paravel's LEVIATHAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Lastly, the men of the ship are filmed in all their un-glory, shelling scallops, overseeing the gear and machinery, navigating the boat, and drifting off to sleep while watching TV in a small messy dining area. Mermaid tattoos, sweat drenched shirts, plastic gloves and aprons, and endless water, are the accessories of the men on the ship; it's isolated, boring, and hard man work.

2013-05-18-4blood.jpg

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and VÈrÈna Paravel's LEVIATHAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

This film tosses you on the waves, like so much discarded jetsom and bends your ear by showing the un-romanticized sea, it's men and the place where fables may have started but do not end. It's not for the weary or faint of heart. If you want an enjoyable time, do not go see this film. If you have a craving for visual potency, the unwinding of myth and the kind of harsh beauty that is stark, strong and splendid, take this ride and hold on.

Preview here, courtesy Cinema Guild.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.