The tough work of commercial fishermen from New England on the North Atlantic Ocean are documented in detail.

Angry ocean yields visionary doco.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The point of cinema, in its first, flickering incarnation, was to make the quotidian seem astonishing. Some workers entering a factory. A locomotive emerging from a tunnel. Commonplace incidents. There was an assumption—naïve, perhaps, but admirable nonetheless—that this new technology and the process it entailed, the mere fact of being recorded and replayed, might transform the everyday world, rendering somehow new and magical and strange.

there are sequences here of extraordinary beauty

More than a century on, we’re inured to spectacle—and our visual language, our ability to process images, has become vastly more sophisticated and discerning. As a result, genuine astonishment is a little harder to come by. Most moving pictures seem either reassuringly or wearily familiar, part of an established tradition; it’s hard to remember the last time you saw something truly remarkable, much less arrestingly new.

But Leviathan, a collaboration between filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, is undeniably that. Occupying a space halfway between documentary and experimental filmmaking, it plunges the viewer into a chaotic and frequently terrifying realm: aboard a commercial fishing trawler in the middle of the North Atlantic. There’s no voiceover, no onscreen captions, no establishing shots—nothing whatsoever to ease us into or guide us through the narrative at all. Only an opening quote from the Book of Job ('Upon Earth there is not his like, who is made without fear’) that turns out to be considerably less portentous than it seems.

Instead, we find ourselves deep in the workings of some massive machine, in almost total darkness. It is night; we can only glimpse fragments of things. There is water everywhere, it shines from every surface. The sense of cold is palpable. To the left of the frame, something is moving fast—it might be a chain, or a rope; a light is flickering. On the soundtrack, some other, metal thing is groaning.

This destabilisation is deliberate, an attempt to replicate the filmmakers’ own experience in situ. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel went out on six voyages, and in all spent just over two months at sea. In an interview with the New York Times, Paravel described their time aboard the vessel thus: 'A lot of fear. A lot of physical pain. Being crushed by the magnitude of nature. Feeling fully alive. And an inch away from death."

That latter statement, in particular, is unsurprising, since the film attests with every frame and edit to the vast, brute might of the ocean, upon which the men and even the ship itself are but insignificant specks. There’s a steady undercurrent of menace here, a constant awareness of the freezing deep just metres away (in many shots, the water can be glimpsed churning at the very edge of the frame). A moment’s inattention, in this realm—a second’s carelessness—means being lost overboard, and certain death.

Yet there are sequences here of extraordinary beauty, a few of which recall the pure image-making of Stan Brakhage—as when our point-of-view suddenly, horrifyingly drops beneath the surface of the water, and the screen flattens out, to become a flickering, almost painterly field of light and shadow. And then, just as abruptly, we’re heaved up again into dim light and air—just in time to glimpse a flock of gulls just above us, scavengers in the vessel’s wake, their bodies shockingly white against the black sky. (A similar image recurs near the end, the birds—almost a pure abstraction now, their pale wings beating against the darkness—even more beautiful and unsettling than before.)

Watching, transfixed, I found myself constantly asking, how did they possibly get that shot? The answer, it turns out, is simple: the filmmakers attached dozens of tiny, waterproof GoPro cameras—of the kind beloved by skateboarders and pro-surfers—to seemingly every available surface of the vessel . . . and to many of its crew as well. I read a piece on the film in which Castaing-Taylor and Paravel said that their aim, in doing this, was to 'distribute the authorship’ of the film—which could seem like pretentious Artspeak, were it not so accurate, since there’s no directing here, at least in any conventional sense: for one thing, the environment is too chaotic, and the fishermen’s attention too necessarily concentrated on their own immediate tasks.

Instead, the filmmakers simply record—and the decision to democratise the cameras’ point-of-view, granting locations precisely the same 'privileged perspective’ as the people within them, serves to constantly disrupt our perspective. Every movement of the camera is matched to an actual physical shift—a body turning, the ship’s hull rolling above a wave. Nothing is arbitrary, nothing is for the sake of style alone. The result, Paravel explained, 'embodies" the film, treating it as 'a gesture, a physical and emotional reaction to our experience, almost like an epileptic crisis or something—an aesthetic translation of what we have been subjected to."

Occasionally a fragment of dialogue is heard, badly distorted through the cameras’ internal microphones, or snatches of heavy metal—the men’s preferred listening aboard ship. But while the film’s sound design is mesmerising, for the most part the images occupy the majority of our attention, and as such, invite a certain speculation. What is Leviathan about, anyway? The dignity of labour? But the fishermen are as anonymous, and as locked into the process they inhabit, as their catches—they’re merely another component in the same, closed system. The certitude of death, the body as meat? Certainly the end of it, that lingering final shot, is akin to a death, and as close to the physical sensation of drowning as I ever want to come.

It’s worth noting, in this respect, that among the fervent praise the film has received, one prominent US critic demurred, dismissing the film as a mere "tone poem". It strikes me that she might be right—though not, perhaps, for the reason she thinks. Anti-narrative, accumulative, shaped by its own many-eyed, omnivorous interests, it’s a tone poem in the same way Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis was, or The Man With a Movie Camera: a vision of a mechanism so immense, so complex and implacable, that it comprehensively defies a single, defining point-of-view, and rejects a single reading.

And while its aesthetic is undeniably poetic, it’s also extraordinarily brutal, much closer to Paul Celan than Gerard Manley Hopkins. A scene of fish being methodically hacked to pieces, and a subsequent shot of heaped, silver corpses—hundreds of them, filling the entire lens—makes this a kind of Todesfuge for industrial labour. Likewise, the torrents of blood sluicing from an open hatch into the sea.

The business of a slaughterhouse is never pretty. But it is frequently awe-inspiring, as filmmakers from George Franju (Le sang des betes) to Fassbinder (In a Year of 13 Moons) knew: a reckoning not only with nature, but with our troubling, inescapable awareness of our own mortality. This film is that, and more. It is sui generis, and as close to a masterpiece as I’ve seen in some time.

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1 hour 27 min