A vibrant kaleidoscope of life on the high seas, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan sails the rough waters between video art and cinema.
Rumble Fish by Mark Wilshin
These days it’s hard not to be political about fish. Whether it’s sustainable, fishing quotas or by-catch. But Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s virtually dialogue-free Leviathan is neither political nor narrative-driven. Instead, setting sail from New Bedford – home to a bygone whaling industry – and naming their film after the biblical sea monster, Leviathan is a visual poem on man’s everlasting tussle with the sea. It’s an attempt to demystify our mythology of fishermen, showing the sea’s brutality and strength, and burying us in a dam of dead fishes. Dedicated to the sacred memory of all the fishing boats lost off the New Bedford Coast and opening with a quote from the Book of Job, Leviathan is a visual chowder which savours the dark violence out at sea.
Slipping around on deck with breathless, flickering fish, hoisting in nets, working the jib, taking a shower or shelling clams, Leviathan takes us on a journey 360 degrees around this fishing trawler – through the air and sea from hull to crow’s nest. And as the credits suggest with their sassy inclusions of a crew consisting of the moon, the sea, gulls and Hippoglossus hippoglossus (or halibut), the landscape of Leviathan, is populated by seawater, birds and fish just as much as man and his nets, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel create some beautiful archetypal images of this marine battle. Such as the seagulls that appear to be flying upside down – flashes of white against an inky black sky. Or the magical glittering carnival of clams and star fish fluttering through a turquoise sea. But Leviathan is equally filled with eviscerated fish corpses – a flotsam of blood, heads and tails thrown back in to the sea.
Leviathan though doesn’t much care though for its human cast. There is little interaction between the men – a shared cigarette or instructions being shouted. And while we see their eyes in close-up we have no knowledge of or relation to what they are doing. There is no story to be told, just a sequence of images. And so, deprived of agency, they human heroes become surface again. The documentary shows us their skilled hands, deftly identifying and sorting good clams from bad, but we never get behind those eyes. Even if sometimes, exhausted, they close while sitting in the ship’s mess watching Deadliest Catch.
Rolling and pitching, plunged into the sea and thrown into the air, Leviathan is a sensory experience. It’s sometimes a violent assault – roaring underwater or blurred by the surf, and at others an ordinary night shift – simply observing the texture of men’s lives as they work. But it’s essentially video art rather than film, revelling in the textures of each image and keeping our engagement to the surface. And by lurches, visceral and beautiful, Leviathan is gut-churningly turbid enough to make you feel nauseous. Even if the sea doesn’t.
Leviathan is released on 29th November 2013 in the UK