Leviathan (France/UK 2012)


This film was screened in the Cinema Versa section of the Leeds International Film Festival. The section is ‘dedicated to documentary’ and ‘underground voices’. But Leviathan is less of a documentary and more of a prose poem.

The directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Vėrėna Paravel explain in the Catalogue:

“We were going to do a portrait of New Bedford, a sort of contrast or tension between its status as a kind of mythical city of Melville and Moby Dick and its one time status as the whaling capital of the world . . . But we realised what was going on in the sea was infinitely more interesting . . .”

And they went to see and record the modern Atlantic fishing world.

What they present from the sea is difficult to describe in print. It is as kaleidoscope of images and sound. Using multiple cameras and sound sources the film races across fishing ship, the  fishermen, their equipment, the sky and sea around, the birds above and the fish beneath or finally on board. Apparently they used miniature HD cameras strapped to their own heads and those of the crew. It looked like they also trailed them in the water. Much of it was shot at night and the discernible image often occupies only a fraction of the screen. The editing is frantic much of the time, the cutting emphasising how little we see or recognise. We see as ‘if through a glass darkly’ and often with only a partial sense of what the camera records. It is not clear how many boats are involved – the filmmakers were aboard a fishing boat Athena. It seems it trawls for varied catches including a variety of fish and shellfish.

But whilst the vision and sound are poetic they are also powerful. There are recurring shots of the sumps of fish, some panting as they expire, some floating probably dead in the mess. One particular sequence shows a gull, chasing food, but now scrabbling at the wet deck and tanks as it desperately tries to flee – finally dropping into the sea, fate unknown. And for most of the time the fishermen themselves are only seen in close-up or partially visible.

For the first hour of the film there are no real establishing shots: it is a melange of close-ups and mid-shots. Then there are two long shots in long takes – the first of the vessel amidships with cranes and pulleys. The second of one crew member drinking tea as he sits and half-watches the television in the mess. Then it is back to the mixture of sea, ship and sky.

Despite being challenging this film works extremely well. I think at 85 minutes it is over-long. I found watching the constant flicker and often almost impenetrably dark screen visually tiring. But at the same time it is always engaging.

As the quotation above suggests this is centrally the discourse that emanates from Herman Melville’s great novel. In fact the film seems to be a visualisation in one sense of the chapters in the book where Melville offers a lengthy litany – of whales and their environs. A point emphasised in the long list of fish species in the credits.


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